Behavior & Environment

How to Help a Child Manage Their Big Emotions

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One of the hardest skills for kids (and adults) to learn is how to manage their big emotions. When kids are in situations where their anger, impatience, fear, sadness, guilt or even happiness is sparked, they often are overwhelmed by those feelings and as a result, have a hard time navigating the situation in an appropriate way.

We all instinctively know the first step in managing the child’s big emotions is getting the child to calm down. But how? Asking or telling a child to calm down, tell you what happened, what’s wrong, how they feel, what they should do, just doesn’t work. In fact, it often escalates whatever is happening. At that moment, when the child is lost in their emotions, they’ve literally lost the ability to use the part of their brain where those answers lie. They only have access to the most basic responses: fight, flight, or freeze.

If the child is unable to move effectively through their emotions, what can you do?
✅ Acknowledge what’s happening right then and there and stay present with the child
✅ Acknowledge what happened (if you know), how they might be feeling, that big feelings are normal and that what they’re feeling is real and true for them

Do not:
❌ Try to deny what they’re feeling, (oh, you’re not really mad at Sam)
❌ Judge their feelings (that’s nothing to get upset over)
❌ Diminish the strength of their feelings (I don’t know why you’re this upset)
❌ Rush them through their feelings (ok, it’s time to let it go)

Simply acknowledge what they feel, provide physical comfort if the child wants it, and be present. This helps the child calm down and reengages their thinking brain. Then you can move on.

The challenging part of this is managing our own feelings. We often struggle with a child’s big emotions and can get caught up in our negative feelings and unproductive reactive patterns. Moving past our triggers and into a place where we can guide a child through their big emotions takes self-awareness, personal insight, and a lot of work. (Guess what, having someone acknowledge your feelings and experiences will help you too!)