How to help your child manage their emotions

Unlike adults, children do not know how to express their emotions. And instead of communicating how they feel they act out or throw tantrums and this can become overwhelming for parents.

Clinical Psychologist Dr Ian Opperman chats to us about the best way to help your child to better manage their emotions. 

Teach them how to identify their emotions 

Dr Opperman says it is important for parents to understand that children cannot express their emotions verbally. 

“For example, a child cannot say “I feel frustrated by the fact that I have to sit in the trolley while you shop and I am tired and hungry” or “I am overwhelmed by the noise and all these people who keep fussing over me,” Dr Opperman says. 

He explains that parents have to teach their children how to identify emotions, what triggers the emotions and how to manage those emotions. 

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“For example. I am frustrated (identify emotion) because I am tired (trigger of emotion) and I need to sleep (management of the emotion),” He says. 

When a child is  expressing an emotion, it is important that you let your child know that whatever emotion they are feeling is normal.

Show them how to deal with emotions

Like most things, children learn a lot of things from what they see and hear from their parents.  

“Research suggests that children mostly learn emotional management and regulation through modelling; it is, therefore, evident that the emotional regulation or turmoil that parents express teaches their child,” he says. 

Dealing with your own emotions is a great way to show your child what is the appropriate way of dealing with emotions. 

“By reacting to your own emotional issues with screaming and being reactive, you teach your child to behave the same when they experience a negative emotion; you are creating a subconscious blueprint for your child which they will apply throughout their life when they experience a negative emotion,” Dr Opperman says. 

Validate their emotions

You also have to provide a safe environment for your child, where they are able to express themselves, where they know that they are understood, and accepted.

“Studies show that children who feel safe are more likely to be able to express and regulate their emotions in a healthy manner,” he says. 

In instances where you are feeling overwhelmed, it’s important to maintain your composure as a parent, and not react to your child’s emotional turmoil with the same negative emotion.

“For example, your child is screaming and crying because they are tired, and then you as a parent start screaming at the child in return; this only reinforces their behaviour and the idea that negative emotion is met with overreacting/negative reaction,” he says. 

When faced with such a situation, it’s important to deal with the situation with care.

“Be calm, take your child and hold them calmly, speak softly, tell them that you know that they are upset, frustrated, and tired and it’s OK to feel that way. Let them feel safe, accepted and understood,”Dr Opperman says. 

Practical things to do to help your child deal with their emotions.


 

Here are some tips from Dr Opperman on how to help your child to deal with their emotions.

  • Teach your child to label their emotions, with a colour or a picture (i.e. red or lion for angry). Teach them to identify what leads to the dysregulation they feel (i.e. I feel like an angry lion when…).
  • Reinforce the fact that they are allowed to speak about how they feel and that they are allowed to have feelings that are different from others. 
  • Teach them that when they know what triggers the bad, angry lion to come out, that it would be better to go for a walk, count to ten, think of something positive, etc. and to know that before the angry lion comes out they can do something to prevent it. 
  • You do not have to have all the answers or have to be able to repair everything, you are allowed to say to your child “I don’t know why you are angry” or “I understand that you are angry and I do not know how to make you feel better…
  • Reinforce the safe environment by saying something like: “but I am here for you and you are allowed to feel like the angry lion right now and you are OK, you are safe”. Just being present is sometimes enough.

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