Responding to big emotions in children - what can you do

Parenting is one of the hardest jobs an adult can have.

At times as parents it can feel as if we are being put through a tumble dryer, pushed and pulled from all different directions; work, family, partner, and the list goes on. Life can sometimes seem overwhelming. It becomes increasingly difficult to find space, time alone, or a place to just be calm and think. And unfortunately, the harder it is for us to be calm as parents, the harder it is to help calm and soothe our children when they are emotional.

The good news is, there are some simple tips and strategies that are very effective in helping respond to your children’s emotions in a way that helps them learn to calm themselves down rather than wind themselves up when they are distressed.

This process includes responding to our children’s emotions by assisting them to notice their feelings, self-soothe, and then choose a behavior that meets their needs when they are calm.

Think of this as an opportunity to build your relationship with your child while at the same time teaching them a new skill

1. Be aware of your own feelings, as well as your child’s. It may be helpful to take five deep breaths. Breathe to notice your own emotions – simply noticing creates a calmer space in you, and if you’re calm, it is easier for your child to become calm as well.

2. Help your child take a breath and do a self-soothing activity (such as stepping outside into the fresh air, holding a teddy, having a hug, naming five things around you that you can both can see). When your child is caught up in an emotion, their fight or flight system is activated and it is impossible for them to rationalise or problem solve until they are calm. This means that sometimes it is more important to allow your child to take a pause and calm down before speaking to them about their feeling, problem solving, or debriefing about what has happened.

3. Once your child is calm address their emotion first – notice what you see in their BODY and what you might imagine they are feeling – be CURIOUS (E.g., “Hmm.. that looked like a really BIG feeling, I wonder if it was sadness… hmmm I am not so sure, what do you think?”

4. Allow them to confirm or give an alternative. Encourage them to be curious about their own emotion and their own body. (What does the emotion look like? Where do you feel it?) Validate what they are feeling (“I understand that must have been hard.”) This is really important to do as you need to show your child you are really listening and let them know it is OK to feel the way they are currently feeling. For instance you may listen quietly and attentively (make time to talk, sit down and actually face your child… let your child know you are REALLY listening to them) or you may give them acknowledgement with words such as “ohh… mmmm.. I see”.

5. After space has been given for the emotion and they are calm,then address their NEED and behaviour– again get them to be curious and problem solve – For example “when you yell, it’s hard for mummy or daddy to know what you need… What are some other ways you could tell me what you want?” or “How else could you have expressed your anger or frustration that would have been safe?” Encourage them to try a new way of being calm and asking for what they want. Have them re-do the situation so that they have a chance to practice the new behavior.

6. Set limits while helping your child to problem solve. Re-iterate that all feelings are ok but certain behaviours are not. Set limits on behaviours that are not OK, whilst acknowledging the feeling and letting your child know it is the behavior not the feeling that is the problem. For example say, “ I can see how angry you are with your brother/sister. It’s OK to be angry but it’s not OK to hit”

The purpose of employing these techniques in talking to your child is to help model how you would like your child to manage and process their emotions. Emotional coaching can help teach your child/children to gain emotional control and then engage in problem-solving processes.

Building Skills for Life

MindMovers Psychology, run by Dr Hayley Watson and Jaimie Bloch is an innovative child, adolescent and family focused clinical psychology service in the Eastern Suburbs that uses cutting edge research to create fun, engaging psychological interventions that your kids will actually enjoy!

MindMovers Psychology offers group programs as well as individual therapy services.

Enrolments are now open for their ‘Calm Kids’, ‘Calm Boys’, and ‘Building Resilient GirlsTerm 4 group programs at their Double Bay clinic.

Find out more at

Eastern Suburbs Mum’s can registerfor a free telephone consultation by contacting Hayley: 0404 612 312 or emailing