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Behavior as Communication

Managing emotions can be difficult for everyone, parents and children alike. So what should you do when your child’s emotions feel out of control?

Get curious about your child’s emotions, and allow him or her to express their feelings. Try to empathize with your child’s feelings while also modeling how to regulate emotions. This can help develop your child’s emotional intelligence, which is their ability to distinguish between different emotions and use that information to guide their thoughts and actions.

Another helpful way to handle your child’s emotions is to avoid dismissing them or making their feelings seem unimportant by saying things such as, “it’s okay” or “don’t cry.” While often well-intended, these phrases can cause your child to stuff their emotions in the immediate moment but be controlled by them in the long run. To your child, it really doesn’t feel okay in the moment and maybe crying is how they express that to you.

What can you do when your child seems overly emotional?

  1. Start before the emotional overwhelm. When a child seems overly emotional, parents can work with the child to build calming skills so that a child can anticipate when their strong feelings are about to overtake them. Your child can then use those skills to temper their feelings before they become too much.

  2. Practice makes perfect. Like baseball, the whole team practices even though they don’t all play each game. Some players remain on the bench until they’re needed. They don’t rise to the situation; they fall to the level of their training. If your child practices using skills to calm themselves when they already feel calm, they’re much more likely to remember and use skills effectively during an emotionally overwhelming moment.

  3. Practice what? A google search will reveal several quick tips for helping a child modulate emotions. One suggestion is to have a child put one hand on their chest and one on their belly and just breathe. When a child becomes aware of their breath and body, it has a physiologically calming effect which helps to tamp down the emotional distress.

  4. Developmental expectations: Bear in mind your child’s developmental stage. A two-year-old will behave differently from an eight-year-old. Developmentally appropriate expectations will go a long way in building your patience and empathy for your child.

  5. Parent mindsets: Emotions, like behaviors, are communication. Children’s expressive tools are feelings and behavior, and parents can pay attention to those.

  6. Why is this happening? Your child could seem overly emotional for a range of reasons. It may be helpful to have them assessed for any underlying conditions contributing to your child’s reactivity. It could be anything from ADHD and trouble sitting still to anxiety.

Listen for what your child is trying to tell you through their emotions. Help them develop skills to calm their bodies down when they’re experiencing big feelings, and consider whether a psychological assessment or therapy intervention could benefit them.


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