Strong emotions are an essential part of being human. They enable us to love, feel joy, and connect with others. However, strong emotions – particularly uncomfortable feelings like sadness, anger, and fear – can be painful and hard to cope with. Children are not born knowing how to handle these powerful emotions. Perhaps you can think of examples from just this week when your own child struggled with anger or sadness! Learning to navigate their own emotions is one of the most important developmental tasks young children face. As a parent or caregiver, there is much you can do to help your child build skills to cope with big emotions.

Validate your child’s emotions…

One of the most important things a caregiver can do to support an upset child is to validate their feelings. In the context of emotions, validation means communicating to your child that you hear they are upset and it is okay to feel that way. It is important to note that validating your child’s strong emotions does not imply that you accept or approve of their behaviors following that emotion. For example, if your child is feeling angry about someone knocking their blocks over and yells or knocks their playmate’s blocks in retaliation, you might say “Given how hard you worked on your block tower, I understand that you’re feeling angry.” By saying this, you are not communicating “… and it’s great that you knocked over John’s blocks!” but instead are simply sharing that you see they are upset and the emotion makes sense to you.

Labeling your child’s emotions helps to increase their emotional self-awareness. It also helps them begin to make connections between their experiences (my tower was knocked over) and emotions (and now I feel mad). This is a critical building block of learning to regulate emotions. Validation can also be very soothing to a child dealing with a painful feeling. It’s important, however, to resist the urge to jump straight from validation to problem solving.

… and pause before problem solving

It is almost always more effective to wait to talk through a difficult situation with your child when they are calm, rather than in the heat of a strong emotion. Think of a situation in your own life in which you felt strong emotions. How effectively could you take in language and think through your actions while still feeling intense emotions? Probably not very well! Children are the same, only to a greater degree because of their not-yet-fully-developed brains! Validate your child’s difficult emotion first, then help them calm down. Later, when your child is calmer, you can discuss their emotion-related actions, give a consequence if needed, and problem solve for how they can cope more skillfully in the future. Of course, if your child’s strong emotion caused them to do something unsafe, it is important to respond immediately. For example, by separating them from the playmate they hit. Once your child is calm, you can return to the situation and talk through how they might handle those feelings next time they occur.

It is the most natural urge in the world to want to immediately respond or “fix” your child’s strong emotions. For example, if a child is feeling sad about their lost Lovey, as in the Magination Press book You Are Your Strong by Danielle Dufayet, it is understandable that many parents would feel the urge to quickly offer to get the child a new stuffed animal to soothe their sadness. When parents immediately attempt to address the source of their child’s strong emotion, the child misses out on a chance to learn that emotions come and go like waves and they are capable of riding out an emotion and feeling calm on the other side.

Emotions come and go like waves and children are capable of riding out an emotion and feeling calm on the other side.

Model Coping Skills

Children learn how to handle their emotions by watching how you handle your own. When you experience an emotion, particularly one that’s painful or hard to feel, consider labeling that emotion for your child and describing how you will cope with it. For example, you might say, “I’m feeling annoyed right now because of the bad traffic. I am going to take some deep breaths and play some music I like to help myself stay cool and calm.” Sharing your emotions in appropriate situations (i.e., when your child can understand the situation and will not feel scared or unsafe themselves knowing you are upset) can normalize big emotions for children. It can also teach them that there is no shame in feeling sad or worried and it is possible to calm those emotions down. Additionally, watching you use your own coping skills gives children ideas of strategies they might try themselves when they’re upset.

When to Seek Help

Some children take longer to develop emotion-regulation skills than others, and a learning curve is to be expected in any child developing a new ability. If your child’s powerful emotions consistently interfere with their functioning (such as hard-to-control anger leading them to lose many friends, or worry keeping them from doing things they want to do) consider seeking additional help. Consult with a licensed psychologist or other mental health professional who specialized in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for children.

This article is an exclusive excerpt from the Magination Press book You Are Your Strong by Danielle Dufayet.

by Julia Martin Burch, PhD

This Article's Author

Julia Martin Burch, PhD is a staff psychologist at the McLean Anxiety Mastery Program at McLean Hospital in Boston. Dr. Martin Burch completed her training at Fairleigh Dickinson University and Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School.She works with children, teens, and parents and specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety, obsessive compulsive, and related disorders. Outside of her work at McLean, Dr. Martin Burch gives talks to clinicians, parent groups, and schools on working with anxious youth.

Related Books from Magination Press

  • You Are Your Strong

    By Danielle Dufayet

    Soothing and empowering, You Are Your Strong reassures kids that they can handle big emotions and highlights the benefit of developing inner strength and confidence in oneself.

    With diverse characters and scenes featuring a range of different family relationships — from parents, to grandparents, to an older sister in the military — this book shows kids that they will have help along the way to being strong and in control.

    Includes a Note to Parents and Caregivers by Julia Martin Burch, PhD, with advice for building skills to navigate and cope with big emotions.