Dr. Jo Ann Unger, C. Psych.
Helping Children Manage Big Feelings
Updated: Oct 5, 2021
Helping children cope with a wide range of feelings is a very common issue that comes up in therapy and in daily life. While there are many excellent resources out there to help parents, which I often recommend, such as The Whole Brain Child by Siegel and Payne Bryson and the Anxiety Canada website, I thought it might be helpful to have a short "cheat sheet" for parents to refer to. The tips below are based on multiple evidence-based theories of how best to support children when they are struggling that families I have worked with have found helpful.
1. The first thing you will want to do is take a few calming breaths or say some calming words to yourself, as you engage with your upset child. The following steps will really only work if you can stay as calm as possible in the moment. If you are upset, it will be very difficult for you to calm and settle your child.
2. The next step is to provide a safe space to listen to the thoughts and feelings your child is having. This may not be our first instinct as we may just want them to stop. However, if you have ever been in a situation where someone has told you to just stop feeling a certain way, you know that does not work very well. Start by providing empathy without trying to reassure or fix the problem. "That must be so tough that your friends did not seem to want to play with you today." Jumping straight to reassurance or problem-solving can be felt as minimizing or judging their feelings and they may be less likely to keep talking or talk again in the future. Also, providing acceptance to others is very therapeutic and is an active thing that one can do to help others feel a little bit better.
One way we can do this is by helping children to name their feelings and describe what is happening. This is particularly helpful, if they are younger and may not have a lot of language for what they are experiencing. We do this with questions so that the child can tell us if we have gotten it right. "It looks like you are very angry about having to leave the park. Is that right?" This step alone can help children settle some, as understanding what is happening can give them a sense of control and reduce a sense of overwhelm. It also supports their socio-emotional development and helps them see that we understand them and what is going on. it is a form of empathy.
If the child is very upset or dysregulated, they may not be able to talk about their feelings. If that is the case, we need to help them settle their body before moving to talking about what is going on. This will require you to stay regulated and calm as children can co-regulate with adults around them. You can coach them to engage in behaviours that are settling for them such as relaxed breathing, physical affection, going for a walk, and splashing cold water on their faces.
3. Once the child has settled, their brain will be ready for additional coping strategies. One useful step is to help them figure out if their thoughts and feelings are realistic for the situation they are in or if they are bigger than what is needed.
If their thoughts or worries are realistic, we can help them engage in using the problem-solving steps to help them figure out what to do or how to cope. Action steps are useful when elements of the problem are within their control. (E.g. Developing a plan to ask friends to play with you.) Coping strategies are useful for parts of the situation that are outside their control. (E.g. taking deep breaths). Try to find the balance between giving them as much independence as possible in coming up with and acting on the solution and with having them feel supported. This is an important skill for them to learn and do independently, as they get older.
If their thoughts are unrealistic, unhelpful or the situation is completely outside of their control, help them find ways to change how they are thinking about the situations or ways to cope with their difficult feelings when they come up. This could include using the facts to develop coping statements to use when the thoughts and feelings come up in the future. "Friends still like each other, even if they do not play with each other all of the time." Another strategy is using brave behaviour to face fears, a little at a time and in their control, to learn that the situation is now safe.
4. If there has been any misbehaviour or breaking of rules, these can now be addressed. This can involve a brief discussion and teaching, highlighting natural consequences that have or will take place, or enforcing predetermined consequences based on your family rules. Doing this earlier in the process is less effective, as they would likely be too upset or dysregulated to take in any learning. It is also important not to ignore misbehaviour due to big emotions, as this teaches children to use big emotions to avoid consequences and does not teach them how to express big emotions appropriately.
5. Once the situation has been addressed, to the best of your ability, it might now be time to find something else to do. It can be helpful to suggest an activity that helps to shift their mood to something more positive or something that helps them connect in a positive way with you or someone else they love. Providing them with some options can be helpful as this gives them a sense of choice.
6. If these steps are not working or you are concerned about their ongoing mental health, I would encourage parents and caregivers to seek out professional support. Sometimes, as adults, it is hard to face the reality that our children are struggling because we so want them to be well and happy. However, our denial of what is happening, won’t make their challenges go away. It is okay for them and for us to get extra help when needed. We wouldn’t hesitate to take them to the doctor if they broke their arm or needed stitches. It should be the same with mental health. Prevention and early intervention are very effective. Even if their current challenges do not seem significant, getting some professional advice on how to support our children can help to prevent problems from getting worse. And if the situation is severe, interventions do work and can help children.