How do I help my child when big feelings take control?
Responding to your child’s “big feelings”
When strong feelings bubble up, the language part of a child’s brain shuts down and they often can’t put words to what they are feeling or think logically.
Parents can help by giving them language and letting them know their feelings are okay.
- Ground yourself. Take a moment to breathe.
- Children, especially young children, need to co-regulate, or “borrow your calm”.
- If you can stay grounded it will help your child know they are safe and you can handle experiencing their big feelings.
- Settle. Get down on your child’s level, literally, sit with them. The idea is to get small with them.
- Some children may like to be held or rocked.
- Others might need physical space, but still want to know you are nearby.
- Validate. If you know why your child is upset, you can validate their feelings with supportive words such as “I see that you’re feeling [insert feeling word].”
- If you are unsure you can say, “You are having some big feelings right now, I am here with you.”
- Some children prefer silence, if you think your words are not helping, it’s okay to sit quietly and focus on your breath.
- Hold boundaries. Big feelings are not a reason for your child to hurt themselves or others. If this becomes a concern, you may need a crisis line counselor or 9-1-1 if there’s immediate danger.
- Connect. Once your child has calmed, connect with them in a way that feels natural for your relationship.
- Examples: gentle touch, a smile, kind words, or laughter
- Discuss. In a calm moment later on, talk with your child about what they were feeling and brainstorm solutions.
- For example: “Earlier today you had some big feelings, what was going on for you?”
- “What were you feeling earlier today?”
- “It seems you are struggling with [triggering incident], let’s think of some ideas that will help if you feel that way again.”
Tips for healthy expression of feelings:
Feelings are a natural and healthy part of child development. When feelings are pushed down or ignored it can lead to depression, anxiety or large emotional outbursts.
Help kids express their emotions in a healthy and safe way by using these tips:
- Get comfortable with feeling words. Building vocabulary will help your child get more comfortable with emotions and express their needs. Using this list of feelings, here are some activities:
- Create a list together.
- Review the list of words and their meanings together.
- Share a story when you had one of the feelings.
- Draw a picture, use colors or sounds to represent each feeling.
- Play feeling charades. Take turns acting out a feeling and guessing what feeling you are showing.
- Listen and engage with their feelings. Instead of shutting feelings down by saying things like “don’t feel [feeling word]”, ask questions and pay attention to what your child is trying to tell you.
- For example, if they tell you they are afraid you can engage with them by saying, “tell me more.”
- Show them. Model expressing feelings and using coping skills by sharing with them in an age-appropriate way.
- For example, you can say something like “I am feeling frustrated so I am going to take three deep breaths.”
- Empathize. It can help to put yourself in your child’s shoes and imagine what they are feeling.
- For example: “You’re really sad and don’t want to go to the park today, I get it. It’s ok. We can go another time.”
- This can go a long way in both strengthening your relationship with your child, building their self-esteem and modeling for them how to empathize.
- Coping Strategies. As children get older, it is important to have a variety of activities they can do to help cope. In a calm moment, you can work together with your child to make a list of calming activities to cope with big feelings.
Some Ideas include:
- Deep Breathing
- Sensory or fidget toys
- Using movement: jumping jacks, walking, yoga poses
- Comfort object: blankets or stuffed animal
- Physical touch: hugs, holding hands, back rubs
- Art: coloring, drawing, writing, or painting
- LIstening to music
- Humming a favorite song
- Do a family feelings check-in. During your daily ride, a shared meal or bedtime routine, have a family feelings check-in. Some ideas for questions:
- What is something funny that happened today?
- What is one feeling you had today?
- Did anything happen today that made you feel [fill in with any emotion]? Tell me more.
- What was the hardest part of your day? What was the best part?
Children’s books about big feelings
- Feelings to Share from A to Z by Todd and Peggy Snow and Carrie Hartman
- In My Heart: A Feelings Book by Jo Witek and Christine Roussey
- Tiger Days: A Feeling Book by M.H. Clark and Anna Hurley