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Helping Little Kids with Big Emotions

Children are little humans who experience the whole gambit of emotions. You’ve heard the squeals of delight, seen the tears of sadness and the throws of frustration.

When your son bites his hand or when your 13-year-old has a screaming fit that started because you looked at her, what is really going on? Is it that she’s mad or can she just not communicate the feeling with you?

Children often don’t have the words to tell you what they are feeling, so parents are left interpreting the emotions for the child. So, if your child is throwing tantrums, crying, whining, or just acting all kinds of crazy, understand that is the way he may be feeling on the inside.

When you understand that, it will help you push through the undesired behavior and refocus on the issue. Once your child has a better understanding of the differing emotions and what emotions feel like in their own body, you will be able to help show them better ways to handle their strong emotions. It’s a tough job. A child’s reaction to a stressful emotion may be a mirror of what the parents are feeling. When you are in a hurry because you woke up late, that’s the day your son decides he wants to try to tie his own shoes for the first time and you just don’t have the time for it. If your stress levels are high, your child is more likely to be disruptive. This is called mirroring.

Children are great about showing us how we are feeling, if that happens look inward and ask what you may be putting out. Small changes in your reactions could reduce the anger and strong emotions in your household.

Reducing the anger in your home often starts with the parents. Take a look at how you react to situations and events. Is your child reacting the same way? When someone tells you to calm down, does it help? Most likely no, then why would it help your child? There isn’t one technique that works for everyone so you may have to try several. When you get mad try:

• The cliché counting or deep breathing (both have to be done slowly and sometimes multiple times to help begin the calming)

• Taking a time-out; adults need time away from the argument too but remember to re-approach the topic when you are calmer

• Exercise, it’s one of the best anger and stress reducers and it doesn’t have to cost anything • Not to get caught in the drama trap. If your child likes to engage you and knows you will respond, stop engaging. Busy yourself with something else, turn your back to your child so you can re-center yourself, just don’t give your child the heightened response.

• Try whispering instead of yelling; before responding take a deep breath and try to keep your voice calm, this is much more effective than yelling.

Once you have your anger under more control, you will then be able to help your child respond better. Changing your responses is hard but it models better coping skills for your child to use. There are a few things you can do to start helping your child through strong emotions. The first thing is to keep your own reactions in check and then:

• If at all possible, identify the emotion before the meltdown occurs and redirect. “Wow! You sound angry right now, how can I help?”

• Time-out with time-in. Your child may need some time to calm down. Be sure to readdress the conversation, differently this time, after about 10-15 minutes. • Exercise. Get out with your child and get them moving.

• Create a calm down jar, instructions can be found online. The best thing about the calm down jar is that it’s portable and offers a distraction while your child is calming. • Have things like bubbles, pinwheels, paper, crayons, bubble wrap or Play-Doh handy to offer a release.

There are many more ways to express emotions and to help teach your child more appropriate ways to let it all out. Remember your child only handles situations the best he knows how and changing that isn’t an overnight process. Whether your child is 3 or 16, patience and understanding are necessary throughout the process. If your child’s anger is severe, it may be time to seek outside assistance. Children often share more information with someone other than their parents who will help them (and you) work out the issue.

- Evan Woodall, LPC, NCC is a licensed professional counselor specializing in children and families at Rockwall Counseling, PA. She can be contacted by email at or


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