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  • Writer's pictureLea Ray, LCSW

Helping your child handle big feelings: Part 1

Parents know kids have big feelings. This can be one of the most magical aspects of childhood. The pure, unadulterated joy on a child’s face when she opens a present, or rides a carousel for the first time, is beautiful to see. Kids have the capacity to experience excitement and happiness much more intensely than adults. On the other hand, kids often also experience sadness, disappointment and frustration with that same intensity. Just as the smallest things bring children joy, kids can also be reduced to tears (or screams) when their Lego tower falls down, or they can’t buy a toy at the store. It’s exasperating and baffling for parents.

This is developmentally normal. Learning to regulate our emotions (get them back under control) is a developmental skill just like learning to walk and talk. It takes time, but it also takes some support from adults. A few things have to happen for kids to learn to handle strong emotions. First, they have to experience strong emotions a few times and get through it. If we think about what helps us handle disappointment or anger, it’s remembering that we’ve gotten through similar experiences in the past. Children do experience frustration starting in infancy, when they have to do hated tummy time or they can’t reach that toy they really want, but in toddlerhood they experience a brand new set of frustrations. That’s one reason toddlers have such huge tantrums (see part 2 for handling tantrums). Second, children need to see how their parents, their top role models, handle frustration. Finally, they need gentle support and guidance on how to calm down when they’re upset.

Often, what is most helpful to kids is for us to offer comfort without jumping in to fix their problem. This is a pretty counterintuitive combination. It’s natural to think, if they are justified in feeling frustrated about this, then shouldn’t we make it better? On the other hand, if we don’t need to fix and they just need to suck it up and deal with it, then shouldn’t we tell them to suck it up and deal with it? But if we reflect on the times we have been upset or frustrated, usually venting to a friend or family member who shows sympathy and support is exactly what we need. Many of us have dealt with that friend who tries to be helpful either by trying to put our problem in perspective, or by rushing in to offer solutions. Occasionally those things are helpful, but more often than not they’re annoying. We can put our own problems in perspective, given a little time and a chance to vent. And given past experience with disappointment, as I mentioned before.

Kids need to experience disappointment or they will never learn that disappointment is something they can handle. I am much more philosophical about problems with technology than I used to be, because now I am used to experiencing them. (Problems with technology sometimes still reduce me to a tantrum, though, depending on the day – and sometimes kids at any age will also fall apart when the frustrating situation is just too much.) Often, it is fine to help a kid when they’re struggling to figure out a new toy, or their tower keeps falling down, but sometimes it is good to let them work through it. Similarly, it is important for kids to sometimes experience not getting the toy they wanted at the store, or not getting that extra cookie even though they want it so badly.

So we can support kids in their disappointment. We can comfort them without giving in to what they want. Yes, they may be angry with us if we are the ones withholding the thing they want, but they will still probably appreciate the sympathy. We can offer a hug or a pat on the back, and if they push us away, we can say, “Ok. I’m here for you if you need me.” For older kids who are upset about something that happened at school or a fight with a friend, we can listen sympathetically and say, “That sounds so frustrating. I’m so sorry that happened to you.” We can ask if they would like suggestions on how to handle the situation or if they just want to vent.

The soothing effect of parents on kids is called co-regulation. Infants rely on their parents to soothe them, usually by holding, patting, and rocking them, and they learn that it is possible to feel better after being distressed. Toddlers often need to be soothed in the same way. Preschoolers and older kids are soothed just by the calming presence and sympathetic ear of a parent.

It is also helpful to label kids’ emotions for them. “I know you’re so mad that the piece won’t fit.” “I know you’re disappointed you can’t get that toy.” “You really wanted that extra cookie.” This builds children’s emotional vocabulary and also helps them to feel heard and understood. For an entertaining illustration of this point, watch Dr. Harvey Karp labeling kids’ emotions in toddlerese.

It can be helpful to suggest calming strategies to kids (usually age three and up). The best approach here is to offer ideas at a calm moment. “When I’m really mad, it helps me to take a few deep breaths. Want to try it with me?” For toddlers, it is very helpful to teach them how to stomp their feet, put their hands on their hips, and say “I’m so mad!” For older kids, strategies can include squeezing something or getting a drink of water (stay tuned for more ideas in part 3). Some kids may appreciate a reminder to take a deep breath when they are upset, but they are often resistant to this suggestion in the moment. At first, they probably will need comfort and time and space to calm down. Then they may be more willing to hear a suggestion for a coping strategy.

Finally, don’t forget that children learn the most from watching their caregivers. Be mindful of using your own strategies to handle frustration so you can be a good role model.

Stay tuned for Part 2: Handling tantrums, Part 3: Regulation strategies, and Part 4: Is this normal?

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