To kids (and adults), emotions can often feel like a runaway train.  They show up suddenly, crashing

through town at top speed, destroying everything in their path.  This is especially the case for sensitive kids who feel emotions strongly and often experience them as overwhelming.  So how do you help your child to gain back control of the runaway train of emotions?

1) Label the emotions. 

Children (and adults) are often bad at labeling their emotions. They know that they feel something and that the feeling is strong, but they don't often put their emotions into words. Simply labeling the child's emotion for the child can help the child to get in the habit of identifying the emotion and also show the child that you see their emotion. Sometimes just identifying the emotion helps the child to feel less alone in the experience of the emotion. This also sets the stage for tip #2.

2) Put the emotions into words

Often kids will act out their emotions—kicking the floor and throwing a tantrum, storming off of the ball field, or throwing something.  For good reason, this leads to kids getting punished. 

However, it is important for kids to know that feelings are meant to be felt. Feelings are present for a reason. They allow you to experience the highs and lows of life and they don't need to be suppressed or ignored.  It's okay to feel all emotions. It's what you do with them can be adaptive or maladaptive. 

Expressing feelings through words is healthy. Expressing them through actions, like throwing things, hitting people or taking revenge, is not. When you label your child's emotions, it gives your child the language to have a way to express his/her emotions without acting them out.  Then you can encourage your child to express why he/she is feeling the emotion rather than acting out the emotion. 

3) Connect the emotion to the preceding events.

Ask your child why your child is feeling the emotion. This encourages your child to make connections between events that occur and his/her feelings. Making these connections can help emotions to feel less unpredictable and scary.

4) Validate the emotion

Often we try to explain away a kid's emotions or tell the kid not to feel what he/she is feeling.  "You're fine, you're not scared," or "It's okay. There's no reason to be frustrated." That doesn't help the child. It's a feeble attempt to change the child's emotions and usually when you try to change another person's emotions, it fails miserably.  Has anyone ever told you not to worry or to stop being angry about something?  Does it work? Usually that just leads the person to feel even stronger emotions and also to feel misunderstood. Instead, you want to say things like "I can understand why you would be frustrated," or "I could see why you might get a little scared in this situation. Everyone gets scared sometimes." This tells your child that you see the emotions that he or she is experiencing and that you are accepting of their emotional experience. Often this will also encourage your child to further express his/her emotions using words. 

5) Remain calm and sit in the emotion with your child.

When your child is in an emotional state, it can help just to have you sitting in the emotion with him/her. But it is important for you to remain calm. Your child may feel like his/her emotions are out of control and scary. If you become emotional as well, a child can feel as though nothing is stable.  Instead, your child needs you to provide stability while your child lets his/her emotions run their course.

This can make emotions feel less scary and out of control and can help your child to feel close to you instead of alone in the emotional experience.  Don't try to change your child's emotion or comfort your child out of it. Just sit with your child in the emotion and provide your child with an anchor to hold on to.

6) Continue to do #1-5 until your child seems finished with expressing his/her emotions. 

7) Engage in problem solving. 

This does not mean solving the problem for your child or providing your child with solutions. Sometimes your child will be able to generate useful solutions to problems if you prompt him/her by saying something like "What do you think that we could do to solve this problem?"  If your child generates the solutions, he/she may be more inclined to actually follow-through with them than if you try to solve the problem for your child.  Additionally, the process of generating solutions teaches your child this important skill.  This will make it more likely that your child will be able to independently solve problems in the future. If your child cannot generate solutions, identify potential solutions and ask your child which ones he/she thinks might be helpful.  You can say something like "Do you think that it would be helpful if we got you a math tutor?" NOT "I'll just hire you a math tutor."  The more active and engaged your child is in problem solving, the better.  This also allows your child to feel that he/she has some control in the situation.

8) End the conversation by telling your child that you are always there if your child wants to talk about something or is feeling an emotion and that you are glad that he/she shared this with you.  Your child's emotional times are teaching moments and also opportunities to be close to one another.  So make good use of those opportunities for your child's growth and development and be glad for the closeness that they bring.

Copyright Amy Przeworski.  This post and all portions of this post may NOT be duplicated or posted elsewhere (including on other websites) without permission of the author.

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About the Author

Amy Przeworski, Ph.D.

Amy Przeworski, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University and specializes in anxiety disorders in children, adolescents, and adults.

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