Helping Small Children with Big Emotions

Diane McGregor, Kitchener, ON

Almost from the moment they are born, our children communicate their emotions to us. Sometimes in VERY big ways.

It is not always easy to understand what emotion is being communicated. Nor is it easy to know how to help our little children with these big emotions. We know that one of our most important tasks as a parent of a baby, toddler or preschooler, is to help them develop the skills of emotion-regulation. How do we do this?

Emotion-regulation is the ability to recognize, express and be in charge of how we manage our emotions. Something we all need, regardless of our age! However, we are not born with the ability to do this. We need to learn how.

It starts with CONNECTION

Babies, toddlers and preschoolers learn about their emotions through us….how we respond to their experiences, behaviours, and reactions, how we help them cope, and how we express our own emotions. Dr. Jean Clinton, Child Psychiatrist at McMaster University in Hamilton says, “Relationships that are warm, responsive and predictable help our children thrive”.

When our infant is crying in frustration, soothing sounds and touches help her to know you are there to love and help. When you consistently respond with warmth and support, she learns she is safe and loved, and her feelings will be less overwhelming to her. It is the same when our toddler throws them self on the floor because another child has their toy or when our 4 year old wakes in terror from a bad dream. Children of all ages need our warmth, responsiveness and predictability in order to cope with difficult and big emotions. When we build a foundation of love and trust, we are also building their ability to develop the skills they need to manage their emotions.

Stages in Managing Emotions

Emotion regulation is not learned all at once. It is a skill that develops over time, with experience, learning and practice…..and with relationships that are warm, responsive and predictable.

Noticing emotions.

In order to learn how to manage our emotions, we have to notice they are there. Believe it or not, this starts in infancy. Babies experience a range of emotions—from joy and delight to frustration, fear and anger. Noticing and responding to their different emotional states, helps them become aware of them.

For instance, when your baby is reaching for you and cooing happily, and you respond by cooing back, engaging eye contact, playing with their fingers, talking softly and cheerfully with him, you are helping him “know” his emotion. Similarly, when your infant is fussy and does not want to be held, and you respond by putting her down but also staying close and offering comforting words and sounds, you are helping her know this emotion is different from other ones. This is the beginning of learning that their emotions are important to you and that you will respond with warmth and love, whatever they are feeling. It is also the beginning of our babies learning that they have different emotions depending on what is happening in that moment.

As babies and toddlers start to develop language, you can start using words to label what your child is feeling. Comments like, “you are so frustrated right now” or “that big smile tells me you are feeling happy”. Children cannot label their feelings until they have a vocabulary for what they are feeling. They need to learn those words from us. As they develop the vocabulary for labelling their feelings, they get better at noticing them….which means the first step to becoming aware of what they are feeling!

Expressing Emotions

It is no secret that toddlers and preschoolers are very good at expressing their emotions! So, you might ask, how is this a step toward emotion regulation? Well, expressing emotion through behaviour, crying, laughing, shouting, or even tantrumming is an important step in communicating emotion. Behaviour is communication!

Young children are often overwhelmed by the intensity of their physiological reaction to the moment and do not have the ability to control what they feel. They need us for that. They need us to respond with warmth and love and to provide the support they need to help settle their high level of arousal. We can do this by coming close, using a soft and loving voice, commenting on their feeling (“oh goodness, you are so angry right now”) and offering some support (“would you like a hug right now?” or “can I sit beside you while you work on this frustrating puzzle?”). When we help soothe their emotional arousal and help them use words to express their emotions, we are also helping to build the “thinking part” of their brains. Once calmed, solutions to the problem are possible.

Connection is the key to so many things in our parenting and it is very true when it comes to helping our little ones manage their big emotions—they need us to be available to them, to be calm and loving, and to help them regain control.

Managing Emotions

As young children start to develop some vocabulary to describe their feelings and an awareness of the different kinds of feelings they have, they can start to communicate and manage their emotions better. Well, that is what we hope, right? The truth is that communicating and managing our emotions effectively is something many of us have to work on for our whole lives!

As parents, we literally teach our children how to handle their emotions by the way that we handle our emotions. Most of the time we are doing this unintentionally. But we all know…our little ones copy everything we do, whether we intend it or not.

So, an important step in helping small children handle their big emotions, is to model—show them—how to do it. This means practice strategies to calm yourself—take a soothing breath, drink some water, relax your shoulders, for example—and use your words to describe what you are feeling, “I’m sad because I miss Auntie Sue so much” or “I’m happy that we are going to the park together!” It is ok that our kids see us cry or express frustration or anger. But they also need to see that we can manage our feelings in a safe and predictable way. To say, “I am feeling angry right now so I am going to sit on the couch for a few minutes to help myself get calm” is a very powerful learning experience for your child.

When we describe our internal feelings with words, we start to connect with the thinking part of our brain and we start calming the aroused part of our brain. The more we can help children develop the capacity to express their emotions with words, the better. Read books that are about feelings, comment on the feelings of characters in stories or videos, ask your child what they think the character is feeling, use play as a way to express feelings, play feeling charade games or, together, create a fun feelings vocabulary. There are so many fun ideas for engaging children in conversations about feelings!

Connection is STILL the key!

Our children still need us to help them through their big emotions. Those tips for infants and toddlers are still good to use. Warm and loving connection with your child helps to soothe those big emotions, it opens the pathways to the thinking parts of the brain and it motivates positive behaviour. It is in these moments of connection that we can begin to solve problems and start to understand what has led to being so upset. We can also plan for how to handle the situation differently, the next time.

Talking about feelings with children (and teens for that matter) is all about timing. We need to pick the right moment….not when they are shouting and crying or busy with an activity. Pick the moments of calm, when you can snuggle or sit together on the couch. When you can connect! Also, keep the conversation short. 

It is important to remember that expressing and managing emotions is really hard. Children need lots of practice at it, lots of support and encouragement, and lots of understanding when it does not work out. Saying, “we’ll just try again next time” communicates that you understand and that you are in this together.

Here are some other resources for helping small children with their big emotions.

 

Download this tip sheet, Helping Children Handle their Emotions

 

Check out these related articles on Parenting Now:

Managing Meltdowns

Understanding Big Emotion

Connection Matters



Comments

One response to “Helping Small Children with Big Emotions”

  1. Teresa Wikkerink says:

    Awesome! Love some of these tips and strategies!

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