Big emotions: what is your child really feeling?

Your child comes home from school angry and upset. He throws a temper tantrum for seemingly no reason at all. You respond with the same anger and send him to his room in frustration. His bad behavior is not tolerable, so you punish him for his outburst.

You and your daughter spend a fun day at the beach. When it is time to go home, she protests and starts screaming at you. She is not ready to leave and is not going to leave. The louder she yells, the angrier you get. By the time you are able to drag her to the car, you are emotionally exhausted and tell her this is the last time you are ever taking her to the beach.

After reading these two scenarios, many parents may say, “That sounds like me!”

As a parent, is there a way to successfully manage emotional outbursts in our kids? Do we even try to resolve these situations? Is it best to ignore our kids or punish them for inappropriate behavior?

What is the answer?

How do we talk with our kids about managing their emotions?

First, it is important to point out that most kids – including teenagers – may not understand the emotions they are experiencing. They easily can express frustration and anger, for example, but they may not know the words that describe their true feelings.

In the first scenario, instead of sending the child to his room as punishment for his outburst, the parent initially should try to get him to talk about why he was so angry. We can start with, “what happened at school that upset you?” Or you can try, “do you want to talk about your day?” See if he is open to talking.

If he is not ready, you can try some calming techniques that may help relieve the anger. One technique I often find successful is a breathing exercise that allows your child to breathe, relax and calm down. Nobody can talk calmly or rationally when they are angry.

Have your child inhale for a count of four, hold the breath for a count of four, and exhale for a count of four. This self-soothing technique may calm your child down quickly. Studies have shown that repetitive breathing helps us relax. There is a sense of mindfulness attached to this technique. We are focused on our breathing and tend to push aside outside distractions.

Another effective technique is “grounding.”

Focus on five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste. This brings all of the senses together and helps you focus on the moment, not the incident.

Then, your child may be ready to begin the conversation of what really happened at school and why he expressed so much anger.

Sometimes, your kids may want to stay mad for a while and they are not ready to let go of their anger. You are not going to get anywhere with attempting a calm, rational conversation. This is when a time out can be an effective, but temporary solution. Make sure it is clear you are going to talk about the problem. And make sure you do talk about the problem. In most cases, after a few minutes, you and your son will be ready to talk calmly.

Emotions are vague and hard to handle for everyone – not just for kids, but also for adults. We have a rush of emotion that can come out of nowhere. Suddenly, we are overwhelmed and often we cannot explain this sudden outburst of emotions. When your child is angry and cannot or will not express his emotions, you as a parent also may need a few minutes of separation time to calm your anger and frustration. And you can tell your child that, too. “We both need a time out until we are ready to talk with getting mad,” you can say.

Remember the goal: you want your kids to understand their emotions so they can express them openly and resolve their problem productively. Often, they may worry they did something wrong, and they will get in trouble. This is a learned behavior. As parents, we need to create a safe environment for open communication to alleviate these fears. Our kids learn by what they see and hear. They will model our behaviors.

Do not be afraid to tell your child, “I made a mistake,” or “I’m sorry,” or “I didn’t handle that situation very well.” They will learn far more from your honesty rather than always trying to be right or perfect.

Here is additional advice that may help parents navigate the big emotions our kids have but don’t understand:

  • Don’t beat yourself up too much if you make a mistake. We are human. Mistakes are great learning opportunities. There is a stigma that parents have all the answers. Sometimes, we don’t, and it is okay to admit that.
  • Listen to your kids and validate their feelings. Don’t dismiss or ignore them because you don’t have the time or patience to deal with them. Allow them to express their feelings without judgment and with empathy. These actions will create an environment for openness. You don’t want your kids to bury their feelings because you didn’t want to deal with them. Eventually, these emotions will cause explosive behavior that could have been prevented.
  • Establish boundaries. Your kids need to know they will be punished for bad behavior, but make sure you are not punishing them for expressing their emotions. It is okay to be angry or frustrated, but it is not okay to throw things in anger.
  • Listen and watch. Your kids may show you what is going on at the weirdest times. Look for those signs. Don’t miss these opportunities to talk.
  • Help your kids recognize and “label” their emotions. You can ask them, “do you feel angry because Billy pushed you on the playground?” “Do you feel sad because we had to leave the beach?” This will help them understand the emotion they were experiencing under the anger.
  • Learn to recognize and acknowledge your own emotions. As kids, we may have buried our emotions because our parents weren’t receptive to our feelings or just didn’t want to deal with them. Now is the time to get in touch with your feelings. This will help you help your kids.
  • Use a “safe” word. When your child is mad or anxious and wants to talk but is worried you may not be ready to listen, have them use the “safe” word, which means it is time for you to stop what you are doing and give your child the attention he/she needs now.
  • Be a good role model. Kids are keen observers. If you yell, they will yell. If you speak calmly, they will do the same. They will model what they see. They are watching you when you don’t think they are, so always try to handle your emotions effectively. They’re probably watching.

Practicing this advice consistently will make a big difference in managing the big emotions your children express. We are the calming force in the midst of chaos. We are the teachers who will help them learn to manage the conflicts they will face in the future.

If you feel you are not succeeding in helping your child deal with emotions effectively, do not be afraid to ask for help. The Center for Relationship and Sexual Health has a team of licensed and highly trained mental health professionals who can offer advice to get you on the right track.

CRSH hosted a Free Webinar on this topic. Watch the recap here:

Author Mina Blatt, therapist with The Center for Relationship and Sexual Health, specializes in working with children, adolescents and teenagers who are dealing with life’s challenges. She has many years of experience helping at-risk youth overcome the issues that have led to crisis situations. She also works with homeless individuals and LGBTQIA+ clients. Mina focuses on a humanistic approach in her therapy. She also incorporates cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness-based stress reduction and person-centered therapy in her practice. When working with youth, she believes strongly in transparency between kids and their parents. She is honest, open and upfront in her communication.