Helping Your Child Gain Emotional Control


image credit: Stuart Miles courtesy

Every parent at some point grapples with a child who “loses it”:  she uses negative behavior like tantrums, hitting, spitting, etc. in order to deal with her overwhelming feelings of anger or frustration. But every child also has the potential to attain emotional control over time as they mature. How does that happen though? Is there anything we can do to help her along?  Sometimes we can feel helpless and frustrated.

I talked about this recently with Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak on their radio program More2Life.   Here are 3 things to keep in mind as you make this journey toward emotional control with your child:

1.  Have reasonable expectations

Sometimes we expect too much emotional control in children too early (or we expect them to be fully in control all the time without reminders).  Some parents may punish for their child for not “keeping it together”. But emotional control is something that emerges over time; it can’t be ordered into a child.

Remember that babies have zero ability to control their emotions.  It’s normal to feel frustrated or worried when your baby cries or seems angry, but the best thing we can do is support them through their meltdowns.  When parents are responsive and warm toward infants when they are distressed, over time they will gain more emotional control.

Toddlers have big feelings, but immature verbal skills – they just can’t find a way to say what they need to say fast enough, so they become overwhelmed. This results in tantrums, crying, or acting out some way. As preschoolers and young children develop their communication skills, they develop an increased ability to handle their feelings.  When the do have a tantrum, it is rarely due to manipulation:  they are probably in true distress and they need help coming back to emotional peace.

Older children and teenagers still have a hard time controlling their emotions in certain circumstances. When they act out badly, though, it may be the result of manipulation and not cognitive immaturity. On the other hand, I try to remind myself that everyone has bad days and everyone has a decreased ability to cope with stress when they are hungry, tired, or hurt. I know I do!  I don’t excuse the bad behavior, but I try to understand WHY they are doing these things and explain to them how their choices are not effective in dealing with the stress.

I think kids of all ages need tips and strategies for handling their emotions before going into a hot button situation. Rehearse potentially difficult scenarios while your child is calm and happy.

2.  Respect your child’s emotions even if she expresses them inappropriately

Children experience anger, frustration, fear, and irritability just like we do. These feelings are not bad – they are actually gifts given to our children from God to help them discover him, to help them come to equilibrium and peace.  The problem we parents are dealing with is rarely the actual emotion our child is experiencing, but rather her clumsy attempt at expressing or managing the emotion.

Affirm your child’s feelings, but give her tips or direction in how to manage them better. “I can see how angry you are that your brother broke your toy. I feel angry, too, when somebody harms something I care about. However, we must never hit or scratch somebody when we are angry. Instead, use your words.”

Hopefully our older kids and teenagers have benefited from our support and coaching in early childhood.  In my home, if my older kids display inappropriate outbursts, I try to show them that I understand where they’re coming from, but I make it clear in no uncertain terms that hurtful or destructive choices are an unacceptable way to express these feelings.

3.  Model emotional control, but it’s okay to be honest about your feelings

It goes without saying that if we hit or scream when we are experiencing big feelings, our kids will do the same thing. I imagine every parent at some point has blown her stack, and at these times we need to apologize and explain that we didn’t handle our feelings very well.  But, again, this doesn’t mean that our anger, frustration, or hurt feelings are BAD. I think learning how to express to my children how I am honestly feeling without invading their boundaries or going overboard has done two things: 1) God has used these interactions with my kids to help me grow up (the relational skills I have learned as a mother have come in handy in my grown up friendships!) and 2) my children are witnessing an adult feeling upset while remaining in control of her actions. That is a more powerful lesson than any lecture will communicate!

Our purpose is to support and mentor our children when their feelings are overwhelming, so that eventually our compassion becomes part of their natural response to emotional stress.

If you’d like to hear my whole interview with the Popcaks, here you go.  I come in about 20 minutes into the show.  But the whole show was great.  The topic was “You Did WHAT???!  Handling the Crazy Things that Kids Do”.


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