How to Respond to Your Child’s Strong Emotions

Here are some tips for dealing with your kid's screams, tears, and fears.Your child is certain to react strongly enough to induce a strong reaction in you. Whether this hasn’t happened yet or happens daily, here are some tips for dealing with your kid’s screams, tears, and fears.

If you have a high intensity child, you don’t need any parenting books to tell you so. Being with them can be exhausting. Children in general are more likely than adults to meet the extremes on either end of the emotional spectrum. That’s what’s great about them. They get so excited for things! And so upset, too.

Our challenge as parents is to allow them both ends of the swing. Here’s how you can deal:

1. Remember: Kids Need Feelings, Just Like Us.

Those of you familiar with Brene Brown and her vulnerability talks know that you can’t protect yourself from negative emotion without also removing the positive.

Allowing yourself and your child the full range of human emotions — including the dark ones — is the only way to experience the highs of life, the only way to fully live.

This means that we acknowledge that our kids have the right to their emotions and the reactions they engender. We wouldn’t tell a friend not to be sad or angry about something that happened to her, so we’re careful not to say the same to our children with our reaction.

Related: Fighting Siblings: Gentle Ways to Cool the Flames

The trick is to acknowledge and empathize with the feeling while we shape the reaction.

Kids don’t throw a fit in the store to get the toy — they throw a fit because they don’t know how to manage the immediate longing they have for the toy in conjunction with the possible need for food, sleep, love, or cuddles. A toddler who throws a tantrum is doing what toddlers do. It makes them normal.

2. Let the Storm Pass.

You may notice that your older children will throw a fit and then apologize after they’ve cooled down, maybe even expressing that they don’t know what happened. As if they were under a spell.

Once, after my five-year-old came out of her cool down, she said, “My body was all hot and crazy and I don’t know why I did that. Sorry for all the tortuous melodrama.”

The magic and wonder of childhood — the right-brained, slow-brainwave state of children — is not always equipped for handling strong emotion. And neither are we. I know I’m not the only one who has locked myself in the bathroom to scream or lashed out at my partner.

So let’s allow our children the same range of emotion and freedom to express it. When they’ve cooled down, we can model and practice more acceptable ways to deal with strong emotion.

Fighting a child’s strong emotion in the moment will only make it worse. The fit will intensify or the emotion will turn more strongly against you or, with ‘easy’ children, go underground as self-loathing.

Try not to take it personally, the displays of energy and aliveness, and help them through the storm. When the storm passes, we can show them healthier, more socially acceptable ways to let these feelings out.

You know what it feels like to be in the grip of some emotion, to be riding the storm of strong feelings. I imagine the most terrifying thing for a child is to have the parent lose their cool, too. Now you’re both flailing around in the storm and there’s no safe harbor.

3. Open the Door, Don’t Close It.

Part of keeping your cool when your child has lost his is believing in his and your own sovereignty — your right to be yourself and steer your own ship.

Related: These 5 Tips Will Help You Make Positive Discipline Work

If you believe you have control over your child and are to blame for any wrongdoing or socially undesirable behavior, your responses to their behaviors will be much stronger and more personal. You also will be unable to see them for who they are, because you are trying to make them into who you want them to be.

If you don’t believe in your own right to feel, express, and be treated respectfully, you will let them storm and spew all over you. They will be terrified by the lack of boundary and your ability to help them reign it in.

You can accept their experience and their feelings, even if you don’t like their behavior. Accept the situation for what it is. Not that you are resigned to letting your daughter scream hurtful words at you, but you accept that she is feeling strongly enough to do that. The acceptance will help you know what to do in the moment.

See each outburst as a cry for help, an opportunity to know your child more deeply and build connection. You are not a doormat, but the door. Your reaction will either close the door in her face or open it and beckon her through.

Most of my reactions to outbursts, I recently realized, were closing the door. Sometimes literally. I would lock myself in the bathroom, send them to their rooms, ignore them.

4. Don’t Blame the Baby for the Poop.

You don’t hate a baby because he poops his diaper and it gets all over his clothes. You don’t think, “Oh for heaven’s sake, he did it again! I’m a terrible parent. This child just doesn’t cooperate. Why do you have to make everything so hard for me?!”

That’s just what babies do. Sometimes it’s a one-wipe change and sometimes you have to get three plastic bags.

When your toddler throws a tantrum or your kids rant and rave about a friend who wouldn’t share, that’s just what kids do. It’s normal for a child to need time and help dealing with her strong emotions, just like it’s normal for a baby to poop his pants.

Don’t take it personally. Accept what it is in this moment and get through the moment. Try opening the door instead of closing it, remembering to respect the sovereignty of both you and your child. Then, when the storm has passed, be sure to talk about and model positive and socially acceptable ways to handle strong emotion.


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