Helping children deal with their emotions

It’s normal for young children to be anti-social, rebellious, defiant and even verbally aggressive at times and for children up to the age of about six to also sometimes be physically aggressive. You can particularly expect an increase in defiance or aggression at times of extra stress relating to changes like a new sibling, moving house, change of caregiver, increased conflict amongst parents or starting school.

When children are behaving inappropriately, they don’t need us to tip toe around them avoiding setting limits because it might upset them. They need limits that help to keep everyone safe. And they also need us to accept and care about all of their feelings, the good and the bad, whether they’re happy, sad or mad. This is what allows them to feel safe and secure, to move through the difficult feelings that life brings. This is what enables them to care for other people’s feelings.

Naming children’s emotions

A critical factor in developing emotional competence is the ability to recognise and name one’s own emotions. Children begin to understand labels for their own and other people’s emotions when parents and educators talk to them about the feelings that other people express in a variety of situations. If a child can recognise his own feelings, he can begin to empathise with other people’s feelings. Being able to label emotions correctly can give the child a language to communicate how they are feeling, which they can use in place of a behaviour to show how they are feeling (e.g. saying “I’m feeling angry” rather than having a tantrum. (Baldwin, Mildon & Antcliff, 2013, p.18)

Teaching a child about negative feelings by discussing a situation openly and honestly strengthens a child’s ability to recognise and regulate their emotions.

Often, adults may be wary of addressing a child’s distress during an emotional response because they are concerned that this may increase the intensity of the response. Using emotions as a teaching opportunity actually does the opposite; it helps contain the child’s fears about the intensity of the emotion they are experiencing, enabling them to learn more about both themselves and the event which has triggered the emotional response. Subsequently, they are then in a better position to self-regulate and/or use problem solving to manage emotion in a more appropriate manner. Critically, it also creates a greater sense of intimacy and emotional connectedness between the adult and child, further strengthening a child’s sense of safety and security within the relationship.

Expected outcomes from discussing emotions with children include: 

  • Increased emotional knowledge
  • Increased child ability to regulate own emotional states
  • Decreased behavioural problems
  • Stronger social skills and prosocial behaviour
  • Increased adult–child emotional bond and attachment
  • Increased problem solving skills.

Using the child’s emotions as a teaching opportunity

Step 1

Rather than dismissing a child’s emotion as irrational, or avoiding discussing it altogether, we can reduce the likelihood of higher-level intensity emotions by teaching the child to understand (and therefore cope with) the strong emotions associated with a trigger event. It is also an opportunity for teaching, and a chance to emotionally connect with the child. Importantly, noticing a child’s emotions at a lower level intensity is the most useful time to teach the child before the child becomes flooded with negative emotions.

Step 2

View the expression of negative feelings as a time to talk openly and honestly, rather than dismissing the child’s emotion as unreasonable or irrational. An important part of this step is to normalise the child’s feelings about the current situation. Think of a similar adult situation and share similar stories of your own experience, which also demonstrates empathy and understanding.

Step 3

Provide the child with an explanation of why they may be experiencing negative emotions. Encourage the child to reflect on what else might be contributing to their feeling.

Step 4

Once you and the child, together, have gained greater understanding about the emotion, you might then set limits around the child’s behaviour and/or teach the child more appropriate strategies for dealing with the problem. In solving the problem you might use these steps with the child to help them identify more solution-focused ways of managing the situation.

  1. Define the problem
  2. Brainstorm solutions
  3. List the pros and cons of each solution
  4. Choose a solution
  5. Make a plan
  6. Implement the plan and check in.
Step 5

The aim of this step is to increase your ability to effectively address the child’s negative emotions or signs of distress. Afterwards, reflect on what you noticed about the things you said to the child (and what you did not say or do) and how the child responded. (Baldwin, Mildon & Antcliff, 2013, pp.20-21) Studies show that children who receive emotion coaching are more likely to have better cognitive skills, stronger social skills, display more prosocial skills, and have fewer physical illnesses than children who do not experience this style of care.