Experiencing emotions is a vital part of being human. Emotions give us information, motivate us and prepare us to act, and give others information about how we are feeling. However, emotions can also be difficult to handle, particularly when the intensity of the emotion grows beyond what we can easily manage, as well as when they are more painful emotions like sadness, anxiety, shame, or guilt. When painful emotions become very intense (i.e., become “big” emotions), they tend to lead to impulsive behaviors, hard to control emotional thoughts, and intense physical sensations, such as tight muscles, an upset stomach, or a headache. Learning to manage painful, big emotions and particularly, to catch and soothe those emotions before they get too big, is an important ability for children to develop. Read on for tips on how to teach your child to handle their big emotions. 

Name and Normalize Big Emotions

We all experience emotions and they are important and helpful – even when they are not easy to experience.

Teach your child that we all experience emotions and that they are important and helpful – even when they are not easy to experience. Brainstorm together about the emotions they experience and how they might be helpful. For example, feeling a little nervous before a test motivates them to study. Feeling guilty after saying something unkind reminds them to be more gentle in the future. Crying when they are sad lets an adult know that they might need help or want to talk.  If your child is not sure how to tell the difference between emotions, link emotions to body sensations. For example, anger often shows up as heat in the body while anxiety often causes tight muscles including tense, hunched shoulders and fists or a clenched jaw. The next time your child is experiencing an emotion, gently ask where they are feeling it in their body. This, along with practice noticing and naming emotions, is a foundational step of emotion awareness and regulation.

Teach Coping Skills

Teach your child a few simple coping skills to soothe their big emotions. It is helpful to match the skill to the intensity of the emotion being experienced as different skills help with different levels of emotional intensity. Kids also often benefit from a visual, such as an emotional thermometer where small (i.e., less intense) emotions are on the bottom part of the thermometer, medium are in the middle, and big are on the top.  

A helpful coping skill for when emotions are less intense or “small,” is to practice helpful “self-talk.” This skill can be adapted depending on the situation, but the basic approach is to acknowledge that you are having a tough time and to encourage or coach yourself as you would a friend in the situation. For example, if your child is struggling with homework they might say “this is really hard! At the same time, I’m doing my best and can ask my teacher for help tomorrow.” As another example, they might say to themselves “I feel sad that my play date was canceled because of the rain. I’m going to figure out how I can have fun inside instead.” 

When emotions are creeping up towards “medium” temperatures, it is helpful to use your senses to pay attention to the present moment. This skill is helpful because it gives us a chance to focus on something concrete, other than the painful emotion. When we return to the emotion after a minute or two of focusing on our senses, the emotion tends to feel more manageable. There are endless ways to practice this skill. One fun option is to focus on the sense of vision and to count every object of a certain color in the space around you. You can also use your other senses, such as noticing how many things you can hear or taste or setting a timer to see if you can notice five different smells in one minute. 

When emotions get very big, it is helpful to use skills that shift our physiology. Cold temperature is one powerful way to calm our bodies down. Put cold water or something frozen (e.g., an ice pack, a bag of frozen veggies) over your face or on the inside of your wrist or back of your neck. Putting cold temperature on these sensitive areas forces our bodies to slow down and quickly decreases intense emotions. Another way to calm your body when emotions get big is to practice “paced breathing” in which you breathe in for fewer counts than you breathe out (e.g., in for 3 and out for 5). 

Tips for Parents

It is very hard to learn something new in an emotionally charged moment so teach your children these skills during a calm time, such as on a walk or on a long car ride. Help them practice and re-practice their new skills in calm moments as well. It can be helpful and fun to turn skills practice into a game in which each family member gets a turn “teaching” the others how to calm their emotions. Repeated practice in calm moments is crucial because it allows children to become familiar and comfortable with the skills before they really need them.

It is also helpful for parents to model using skills themselves. For example, you might say “I am feeling worried that we will be late for the doctor’s appointment because of all of this traffic. I’m going to use my paced breathing to help calm down.” Kids learn by watching and seeing their parent use skills tends to increase their willingness to try skills themselves. Finally, give labeled praise each time your child attempts to use a skill to soothe their emotion – even if they are not ultimately successful at decreasing their emotional intensity. For example, you might say “I love that you tried counting colors when you felt really worried. Nice work.”

When to Seek Help

If your child’s big emotions are regularly interfering with their ability to be a kid (e.g., go to school, have fun with their friends, participate in extra curricular activities, relax and play), consider consulting with a mental health professional who specializes in working with children. It is particularly helpful to seek out a clinician who practices cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) which is an evidence-based treatment focused on teaching skills for managing difficult emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.

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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.