How to Handle Your Child's Big Emotions

May 02, 2022

Do you have a child who feels ALL the feels?

When they are mad….they are furious

When they are sad….they are full of despair

When they are happy…they are elated

When they are scared….they are panicked

Or, are they a toddler? Then, all the above probably applies automatically!

Some kids are bigger “feelers” than others. They may rapidly swing from one extreme emotion to another. We call the ability to control those swings emotional regulation. Every child is at a different point in the emotional regulation spectrum. There are multiple factors that impact a child’s ability to regulate their emotions:

  1.  Age. This is the top factor in a child’s ability to regulate their emotions. Toddlers tend to struggle with this much more than older children. Which really comes down to brain development. Toddlers’ brains simply do not yet have the maturity to regulate extreme emotions.
  2. Genetics. A parent who experiences regular extreme emotions is more likely to have a child who similarly struggles.
  3. Developmental Differences. Children who meet clinical criteria for disorders such as AD/HD, Autism, or clinical anxiety are more likely to struggle with emotional regulation. But, keep in mind, that the reverse is not true. If they struggle with emotional regulation, it does NOT automatically mean they have a clinical disorder!
  4. Brain Development. Each of the above is related to brain development. There are areas and systems in the brain (prefrontal cortex, cingulate cortex, limbic system) that serve as “filters.” They filter out unnecessary information (like, the way your tag on your shirt is slightly scratching you, but you did not realize it until you read this). These areas of the brain also help filter out and put a “brake” on extreme reactions to emotions. For example, if you stub your toe in front of a group of 4-year-olds at the library, you can inhibit the urge to hurl expletives. However, if alone in your room when you stub your toe, you may let those expletives fly. This ability to distinguish when you will, and won’t, rage is all due to the magic of brain development!

Even if your child struggles with emotional regulation more than other children, it is something that can be improved! Here’s how:

  1. Preparation and Practice. In a previous blog post (Linked Here), we discussed our A.R.C. Parenting Iceberg model. In our model, we stress how addressing childhood “problems” before there is ever a “problem” is key to parenting! Most of the work in helping your child regulate their emotions happens when they are already happy and regulated! This is the bottom of the parenting iceberg. These are skills you daily teach your child, to help build up their skills. This is key in preventing most problems before they ever really arise! Here’s how:  
    • Build up your child’s emotional vocabulary. Words are powerful. Having the words to express how you are feeling automatically reduces the need to thrash and kick and scream to express what you are feeling! Build up your child’s emotional vocabulary by:
      • Labeling your own feelings: “Whoa. I did not drink my coffee this morning and I’m feeling irritated. It seems like every little thing is making me madder than usual! I think I need to take some deep breaths and brew some coffee!”
      • Label feelings in characters in books and shows: There are so many opportunities for this! Label what you see, and have your child mimic the feeling faces of the characters they see.
    • Practice calming down strategies when they are already calm. Asking your child to take a deep breath mid-rage will never work….unless you’ve been practicing! They need to practice strategies that help their muscles relax and their blood to re-oxygenate. We talk about this in much more detail in our “Parenting 101” course (Read more here). We also include a printable of easy ways to teach calming down strategies. 
  2. Label your child’s feelings as you see them. As your child begins to become upset, simply label what you see. This can be as simple as “You are frustrated!” Many times, simply labeling your child’s feelings is validating enough, and you will not need to do more.
  3. Practice co-regulation together. If your child begins to become upset, you validate their emotion, and they get more upset, help them ride the wave of becoming regulated again. This means that you will NOT: fix the problem, yell at them, tell them to get over it, or smother them with too much help. You will:
    • Continue validating: “Ah man, you are super angry that he took your block!”
    • Let them know you are there and available to help: “I’m here if you need a tight hug or back scratch to feel better.”
    • Model calming down strategies: “I’m feeling frustrated myself, I’m going to take some deep breaths. In through my nose, out through my mouth.”
    • Ride the wave. Your child cannot stay in tantrum mode or extreme emotion mode forever. You may need to ride it out, as calmly as possible. Once they are calm again, you can discuss what happened, what they are feeling, and problem-solve how to help more next time.

Also remember: Really big feelings from our kids can make us as parents also feel panicked! It’s easy to see our kids in an extreme emotional state and jump to the worst possible conclusion….

“He gets SO MAD over the littlest things!? How is he going to function in life!? How will he ever take correction from a teacher or boss!?”

“She worries about the tiniest of problems! It’s exhausting. How are we going to make it through the next decade like this…”

That’s why a major key in handling our kids' big emotions is to put a brake on your own negative thought patterns. Big emotions are just that….big emotions. We all experience them! They are NOT a predictor of future behaviors or life success!

-Dr. Erin Avirett 

Need more help with your child's big emotions? We cover this childhood emotional regulation in much more detail in the “Encouraging Emotions” video in our ‘Parenting 101’ course.

Our parenting course is straightforward and full of easy-to-implement parenting advice! Information is split into easy-to-digest videos, most of which are under 6 minutes.

Still unsure? Check out our free video, “Praises and Prizes” here (Free Video).

Or, check out the full course, with the code BLOG20 the "Coupon Code" box for 20% off our course! (Parenting 101)





Learn more about our 'Parenting 101' video course here!

Parenting 101 Course Info

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