Helping Kids Manage Big Emotions: A Guide for Busy Parents

Categories: Behaviour

Sometimes it can be hard for adults to manage big emotions, let alone children who are still learning how to identify and regulate their feelings.

Kids can easily get overwhelmed by their emotions, which can lead to outbursts or meltdowns. These situations are usually exacerbated by hunger, tiredness or illness. Unfortunately, they also often happen when parents are busy and feeling overwhelmed themselves.

At these times, it can be easy to dismiss a child’s outburst over a seemingly trivial matter. When you are trying to get out the door in the morning and your child is having a meltdown about not being able to find their favourite socks, it can be very frustrating. Most parents are guilty of having said something like “You’re fine!”, “Stop crying”, “It doesn’t matter” or “Calm down” at some point.

Of course, anyone who has ever been told to calm down when upset knows that it is, ironically, the least effective way of calming someone down!

While it can be difficult in our hectic lives, it is important for parents to model emotional regulation, particularly when kids are in meltdown. Responding to an upset child with a strong negative emotion like frustration or anger will only make them feel more out of control.

Fortunately, there are some simple things parents can do to help calm their child and keep moving through the day. In most cases, how you react to your child’s outbursts in the moment is the most valuable intervention.

1. Let them know it is okay to be upset.

This is all about validation. It’s important for children to learn that what they feel is allowed and normal. Emotions, especially the big ones, can be difficult for kids to process and we don’t want our children to be ashamed of them or feel like they need to be hidden away. Everyone wants to be heard and validated. A simple way of validating your child’s emotions is saying something like: “I know you are frustrated. I would be frustrated if I couldn’t find my favourite socks too.” This not only helps them name their emotion but acknowledges that it is ok to feel this way.

2. Teach them healthy ways to express their emotions.

Following closely on the first point is teaching kids about how to express their emotions in a safe and healthy way. Even the gentlest child can lash out in frustration or anger. We need to reiterate to our children that even when dealing with big emotions there are appropriate ways to behave. For example, “It is ok to be angry but it is never ok to hit.”

Teaching them strategies such as walking away, belly breathing, humming their favourite song or visualising something they love are simple but effective ways of teaching them how to self-soothe and regulate their behaviour before reacting.

3. Reassure them that you are there for them and they are safe.

Being a child’s calm, safe space when they are experiencing big emotions is an important and vital role for a parent. This can involve a reassuring hug or just sitting with them as they work through what they are feeling. While some days your initial reaction might be “I don’t have time for this”, you will probably find that giving your child those couple of minutes of reassurance and comfort while they process their challenging emotion will help things move along quicker. Make space and time for them to regain their composure rather than trying to get them to move on before they are fully recovered from their meltdown.

4. Remind them that emotions are transient.

Kids live in the present moment so how they feel right now is how they think they will feel forever. Teach them that a bad moment does not make a bad life, or even a bad day. It can be hard for kids to comprehend that how they feel right now is not permanent but you can link it back to another time they were equally emotional: “Remember that time you lost your favourite soccer ball but then we found it in the car? You were really upset but then afterwards had a great time playing soccer at the park.”

5. That even bad feelings can help us grow

We all make mistakes but if we reflect and learn from them then even a bad situation can have a positive outcome. Reminding children to look for the lessons in life and work on how to do things better next time teaches resilience and problem solving skills.

With these simple strategies, you can help your child regain their composure, while at the same time teaching them emotional regulation skills that will last a lifetime.

Big emotions can easily overwhelm children but the earlier you support them in managing them and teach them how to self-regulate, the calmer your household will be.  

And, if you have toddlers in your home, you must check out this video from parent educator Stephanie Wicker about taming toddler tantrums through teaching self-regulation.