Helping Children with Big Emotions

Updated: February 12, 2020
When your child starts to display "big emotions", it's easier to join them and get mad and upset. But, it's more beneficial if you help them. Here are our top three tips for handling big emotions.
toddler girl facing big emotions, crying and screaming

“They go from 0 to 60 so fast!” “The behavior comes out of nowhere!” I hear these expressions every day at almost every school I enter by many adults I partner with.  They want a quick fix and all the answers pronto. They want me to wave my magic wand, sprinkle some pixie dust and make all the behaviors go away.  

More: A Parent's Guide to Conscious Discipline

Adults often ask, “What do I do when they hurt others?” Or sometimes that action of hurting others changes to swearing, shutting down or hurting themselves, but the question is relatively the same each time it is asked. They want to help, but at the wrong time. We can’t help children when they are already heightened in emotion. That is a reactive way of looking at behavior. 

The proactive path is the one we want to wander down. Chase the why! Why did the behavior jump out of that little body? Why did he get so mad? Why does this behavior keep happening? Why can’t she calm down? 

Hang out with these three truths to help regulate children’s emotions proactively:

1. Concentrate on 0 to 40.

mom handling bit emotions with son

Help is best given when the logical brain is clicked on and the emotional brain is at rest. When the emotional brain is turned on, the logical brain has to turn off. The brain can’t be both emotional and logical at the same time. So when children show big emotions, it is already too late. I would argue that children don’t go from 0 to 60 fast, they go from 40 to 60 fast. We need to hang out in 0-40 not in 40 to 60. Each tick or notch in the 0 to 40 space climbs the child higher on the ladder of big emotions. We have to go on an adventure to find what causes children to climb each rung. 

2. Small things may, in fact, be big things.

toddler having temper tantrum in car with siblings

Having a rushed morning, forgetting your snack, wearing the clothes your mom picked out, not getting the coveted spot in line, being laughed at, or being told you weren’t invited to someone’s birthday party are steps up the ladder’s rungs. 

We judge how those affect children and we are usually wrong. I remember asking children I used to nanny to numerically rate how upset they had been during certain instances and I got the number wrong every time. I assumed a much lower number. I concluded that judging circumstances in another’s life isn’t beneficial to solving behavior problems. Talking about why it was so impactful turned the tables enough so I could find a seat. Now calmer and sitting, instead of reeling standing up, I had a more level head.  

3. Don’t meet their energy.

toddler having tantrum and mom getting upset

Staying calm in the midst of a storm is hard….really, really hard.  I think it is even harder when you know the best thing to do is stand at the starting line when emotions are loud and prominent at the finish line. You feel the urge to dash down the straight away and meet them where they are. It feels good to release that energy. As you catch up, they run farther away.  As they run farther away, you sprint to catch up. Now you are both frenzied, way past being logical and too emotional to make any sense or use any helpful strategies. Find your calm and bask in its rays!

Learn more about the importance of emotions and how "Emotional Literacy" could be impacting your kids.

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a Pinterest guide to handling kids with big emotions

Megg Thompson, a former teacher of ten years, is a Certified Behavioral Consultant and Certified Life Coach working with children, adults and families. Megg is also the founder and filler of The eMpTy Toolbox. She spends her days in both public and private schools, childcare centers, preschools and in homes helping children of all ages be at their best. Megg lives on the beach in Hampton, NH with her husband, son and “will always be a puppy” chocolate lab. For more solid information and a dash of humor visit https://meggthompson.com