When Your Child Is Feeling Big Emotions
Strategies for Helping Kids Cope When They Are Sad, Mad or Scared
by Michelle Nietert & Tama Fortner
We’ve all been there, haven’t we? When the tears, the fears or the tempers erupt, and we parents are left wondering what on earth we can do to bring our child back to calm and reasonable.
Because the fact is, kids have big emotions—just as big and real as any we experience. And they’re still learning what to do with them. Our job as parents is to teach them to recognize and process those emotions in safe and healthy ways that not only honor what they’re experiencing, but also honor God.
That means much of the answer to the “What do I do?” question lies in what happens before those big emotions come calling. Here’s how to begin laying that groundwork:
Make home a safe space. Children need to know that home is a place they can feel safe and comfortable expressing and sharing their feelings. No, not in “throwing a fit” kind of way. Rather, let’s make sure they know we’re always ready to listen and help. Psalm 46:1 describes God’s presence as our place of refuge and source of strength. Our homes should be a reflection of that truth, filled with love and a sense of the presence of God.
Manage our own emotions in healthy ways. Little eyes are watching and little ears are listening to what we say and do with our “big” emotions. So . . . what do we say when someone cuts us off in traffic? What do we do when we’re worried or afraid? How do we handle the sadnesses of life? Our kids need to see us expressing emotions without losing control. And most importantly, we need to show them how we carry those emotions to God. Let them see us turning to His Word. Let them hear us praying. Let them witness the fruit of the Spirit in our lives (Galatians 5:22–23).
Then, when the big emotions do pop up in your child’s life . . .
Validate your child’s feelings. Take time to listen to your child. Get down on their level and give them your full attention. Repeat their responses back to them to make sure you’re understanding what they’re saying. Reassure your child that it’s okay to have the emotions they’re experiencing. This will help them feel heard and acknowledged. Some great phrases to use are: “What I hear you saying is . . .,” and “I can understand how you would feel . . .”
In these moments, you have the opportunity to teach your child some emotional vocabulary and to help them learn to use those words based on the intensity of what they’re feeling. For example, are they disappointed, sad, heartbroken or devastated? Are they worried, scared or terrified? Are they upset, angry or furious?
Teach calm-down (or coping) skills. It’s important for children to build up emotional resilience—to be able to calm themselves and control their reactions. You can help by walking your child through some different ways to cope with their emotions, such as:
taking slow, deep, audible breaths
going for a walk outside
talking to God in prayer
talking to a friend or trusted grown-up
writing or drawing out their emotions
Different strategies will work better for different children. As your child learns the strategies that work best for them, they can begin to use these techniques on their own when they feel overwhelmed.
Turn to God. After you’ve listened to your child and helped them name the emotion they’re feeling—and perhaps where they’re feeling it in their bodies (for example, a tight chest, teary eyes or heavy shoulders)—ask if you can pray for them or with them. Philippians 4:6 tells us to take everything to God in prayer. This is a wonderful time to model that, reassuring your child that there is no emotion too big for God to handle.
Speak words of blessing over your child, those words we all need to hear. Ask God to comfort them with His presence. And encourage (but don’t force) your child to add their own words of prayer.
Try a breath prayer. Guide your child through slowly and deeply breathing in God’s love, peace and joy. Then, slowly breathe out whatever is bothering them. Make an audible sound as you exhale to help release the tension of the emotion.
Yes, children experience all the emotions and in big ways. But with thoughtful and prayerful guidance, we can not only help them learn to manage those emotions in healthy ways, we can teach them to carry those feelings to the God who is our “ever-present help” (Psalm 46:1 NIV).
Note: If your child is experiencing intense emotions that are interfering with daily life, consider seeking professional help from a Christian therapist or counselor who specializes in childhood mental health.
Michelle Nietert has been a licensed professional counselor for over twenty-five years and is the coauthor of the award-winning book Loved and Cherished: 100 Devotions for Girls and Make Up Your Mind. A passionate speaker, she is a frequent guest on national television and podcasts, including her own "Raising Mentally Healthy Kids." She and her husband, Drew, have been married almost two decades with two school-aged children. Connect with Michelle at www.YourMentalHealthCoach.com.
Tama Fortner is an ECPA award-winning and bestselling author with more than fifty titles to her credit, including Simply Christmas and Easter Is Coming!. She has collaborated with some of the biggest names in Christian publishing to create inspirational books for children, teens and adults. But her greatest accomplishments happen in a happy little home on the outskirts of Nashville, Tennessee, where she lives with her family and a feisty little pup who is convinced he’s people too. To learn more, visit www.TamaFortner.com.