There’s no question that little kids have big emotions—a full range of feelings that come and go with a frequency and intensity that would exhaust a full-grown human. So, how can we, as moms, help our children begin to manage their big emotions without stuffing them down, prettying them up, or feeling as though there’s no room for them? In this article, Michele Morin encourages moms with 5 practical strategies for managing emotions in little kids and reassures us we are never alone in the journey.
When you’re 5 years old, baking cookies with your Sunday school teacher at her house on a Saturday morning is just about the best thing in the world. The moment I arrived to pick up my son, I could tell by his beaming face that he had enjoyed every minute of it. The baking, the snacking, and the chance to collect rocks and seashells on the beach afterward. However, I was not prepared for the big emotions that showed up when I walked through the door!
Clearly, he was NOT glad to see me, NOT ready to leave yet. He was NOT happy to have his perfect morning interrupted, and NOT intending to thank his teacher politely and follow me out the door. His big emotional response landed in the room like a force of nature. To me, as a young, overwhelmed, over-tired mother, it felt like a tidal wave.
There’s no question that little people have big emotions. Grief, anger, disappointment, joy—a full range of feelings that come and go with a frequency and intensity that would exhaust a full-grown human.
BIG EMOTIONS ARE INCONVENIENT
On the Saturday of that cookie-baking meltdown, I was also wrangling a preschooler and a toddler. And, of course, I was myself being wrangled by a tight schedule. So I couldn’t swoop in with a quick, “hello and thank you” to his teacher and a swift three-way click of the car seats. Instead I needed to negotiate with my little cookie baker and keep his brothers in tow while trying to reassure his Sunday school teacher that I had everything under control. (Did I?)
I hadn’t built time into my day for the delay caused by my son’s disappointment and frustration. It felt inconvenient, definitely triggering big emotions of my own! Looking back on the experience, I wish I had been better equipped to help the little people in my life to feel seen and known when they experienced big emotions.
So, how can we help our children to begin to manage their big emotions without stuffing them down, prettying them up, or feeling as though there’s no room for them?
5 STRATEGIES TO HELP LITTLE KIDS MANAGE BIG EMOTIONS
A quick search of Scripture reveals that humans have been cleaning up the messes caused by big emotions ever since the beginning of time. A cocktail of anger, jealousy, and disappointment fueled Cain’s murder of his brother Abel. Seeing the evidence written all over Cain’s face, God stepped in to reason with Cain and warn him that he must “rule over” emotions that would lead him into sin (Genesis 4:7).
If Cain was unable to get down from the dangerous ledge of big feelings after talking with God Himself, can we, as flawed, human parents, expect to help our children successfully manage their emotions? Not perfectly, of course. But the way we respond to them in the moment is crucial. We have the opportunity to harness a teachable moment and direct the energy of big feelings toward growth and positive character development. Or to miss the moment and watch our child’s emotions manage our child instead of the other way around.
1. MAKE TIME AND SPACE FOR EMOTIONS
First, let’s make time and space for everyone’s feelings. Instead of turning up the music in the mini-van to mask the sound of your own sobbing or instead of short-circuiting an argument by handing your 12-year-old a screen to distract her. Instead of squelching the disagreement, hushing the whining with a cookie, or quieting fears with happy talk. What if we stopped everything and simply made time for everyone to feel their feelings?
When we’re over-scheduled, there’s no time for even a deep breath. Never mind the kind of heart-to-heart conversations that are crucial for strong relationships that support mental health. Problem-solving takes time. Our culture of packed schedules and serial appointments and commitments leaves no margin for helping children manage the feelings that wash over them.
Find What Works Best for You
Every family will approach this in a unique way. For some, this will mean leaving the house for church, school, or appointments early enough to avoid the mad rush. Others may find they need to schedule fewer events, intentionally doing less every day and planning for quieter weekends.
We even found that our holiday celebrations needed to be tamed. Rather than a huge build up to Christmas and an overwhelming pile of presents on Christmas morning, we did something (ONE thing!) every day of the month of December to prepare for Jesus’ birthday. If a box of gifts from Aunt Melissa showed up in the day’s mail, we opened it after dinner as a way of shrinking the intensity of Christmas morning.
Eugene Peterson describes our walk with Christ as an invitation to “learn the unforced rhythms of grace” (Matthew 11:29, The Message Translation). Grace is the lubricant that frees up our family’s relational gears. But we have to stop and leave time for it to flow.
2. NAME THE EMOTION
Second, give the big emotion a name. If you can’t name it, chances are you can’t tame it. The Proverbs are a gold mine of advice for dealing with the messy underbelly of our humanity. It’s true that, “Wrath is cruel, anger is overwhelming, but who can stand before jealousy?” If the wise writer behind Proverbs 27:4 bothered to tease out the fine distinctions among anger, wrath, and jealousy, perhaps we should follow his example.
For example: Am I simply rummaging around in my emotional entrails and soaking in self-pity? Or is there sadness in my life that needs to be looked at and mourned? Is my 7-year-old grandson just copping an attitude? Or is he feeling stressed because of a change to his usual routine?
Interrogating our children’s emotions carries us into the deep weeds of motive. And that’s tricky territory requiring honest communication and trust. The truth is that knowing why our son or daughter has burst into tears makes all the difference in the world.
3. GIVE FEELINGS AN OUTLET
Once you know what you’re dealing with, give the emotion an outlet. When I’m conducting long drawn-out hours of standardized testing with my homeschooled grandson and he starts to act discouraged, we run around the house seven times. (He’s 7, and yes, I try to run with him!)
The day-to-day practice of helping children manage emotions will look different for every child. And it will probably change according to seasonal stressors or even what kind of a day it’s been. Set aside a time with each of your children on the heels of a big emotional season. If things went well, ask them what strategies worked for them.
If the whole season felt like an emotional bloodbath, problem-solve together.
Employ probing questions such as:
“What do you wish your family could understand about your [name the emotion]?
How can we do better next time?
What would you like to change about your response when you start to feel [name the emotion]?”
Consider variables such as:
Might your child handle big emotions better via a time out in a quiet, dimly lit bedroom?
Is your child going to bed early enough?
Does your family’s lifestyle include lots of physical activity and as much time in the outdoors as possible, given seasonal and geographical conditions?
Is there a hobby or sport that relaxes your child and creates breathing space for his heart and soul?
4. BE MINDFUL OF YOUR OWN EMOTIONS
Start monitoring your own emotional responses. Madeleine L’Engle coined the term “tirage” to describe her own strong verbal reaction to anything that upset her. The word resonates for me because of my own tendency to throw words around when I’m frustrated or angry. And it’s interesting (convicting?) to see the same behavior in my kids and grandkids.
Part of training our children for life on this planet includes allowing them to bear witness to our character. It entails allowing them to see our knee-jerk reaction to the unexpected. Our kids need the experience of seeing a spiritually healthy adult model a full range of emotions.
Don’t hide the tears that come with a sad movie or with the joyful praise music at church. When over-the-top evil hits you squarely in the soul, let your anger over injustice bubble out in family devotions as you pray for God to intervene.
Name The Emotions
When your child’s actions hook an inappropriate reaction in you, name your emotion and make a statement about how you are presently handling it. “I feel so frustrated when you fight with me about wearing shoes. We’re going to be late for story time. But I need to sit here and be quiet for a minute so I won’t sin against you with my words.”
North Americans have been programmed to stuff our emotions. We resist the practice of lament, because it feels awkward, negative, and out of step with our self-help, best-life-now mentality. As a woman with an “Emotions to Deal with Later” file that’s an inch thick, I am learning it’s better to feel them now and to deal with them in the moment so they don’t go to waste.
5. KNOW THAT GOD SOVEREIGNLY DESIGNED EMOTIONS
Finally, be aware that God is sovereign even over our feelings. He designed us with emotions. And there’s no shortage of examples of this in Scripture—nor even any attempt to hide the ugliness of the inappropriate emotional responses of biblical characters. David was not a calm, easy going guy. Paul was so tired of dealing with conservative Jewish Christians’ obsession with circumcision that he confessed to the Galatians his wish that they would “just go all the way and castrate themselves” (Galatians 5:12, The Message Translation).
Is it possible that God designed Paul and David with big emotions specifically because He had work for them to do that would require big passion and big perseverance? Is it possible that God designed your children (and you!) with the exact palette of feelings necessary to motivate the big influence He wants them to have in His Kingdom-building work?
Our emotions connect us to our Creator in ways that nothing else can replicate. Writing from her own experience of deep grief, Tish Harrison Warren observed, “Unless we make space for grief, we cannot know the depth of the love of God, the healing God wrings from pain, the way grieving yields wisdom, comfort, even joy.” Our emotions actually serve as a tool to reveal to us our need for God and to draw us close to Him.
Face Your Own Emotions
Dealing with my own anger has been one of the most humbling parts of my parenting journey. One blessing that has come with this struggle, though, has been a heightened level of compassion for the failings of others. I have been forgiven much (Luke 7:47), and therefore, perhaps, I am able to love much as well.
The God who “formed [the] inward parts” of our children is well able to come to our rescue as we trust Him for discernment in managing the big emotions in our homes (Psalm 139:13). He will powerfully assist us as we trust for grace to adjust our families’ patterns of life to make room for emotions. He will stand with us as we strive to give them a name and to provide for them an outlet.
As you seek to help your littler kids manage their big emotions, be encouraged that God has “searched and known” you as well, and He will walk beside you into the tough questions you need to ask yourself about your own emotional responses. In His strength you can model a full bandwidth of healthy feelings—even big feelings. Learning to manage our children’s big emotions can be one more cord of love, binding us to the heart of our God who designed us as emotional creatures, and connecting us to our children as they realize that they are seen and known and loved, big feelings and all!
Did any of Michele Morin’s strategies resonate with you as you seek to help your children manage their big emotions? Are there any additional strategies you would add that have encouraged you on your parenting journey?
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Michele, your wisdom will be most helpful to not only parents but grandparents as well! This >>> “Grace is the lubricant that frees up our family’s relational gears. But we have to stop and leave time for it to flow.”
This grandmother is still very much a grace-dependent woman! So good to hear from another grandmother!
When I was a young mom, the big emphasis in instructions to parents was on obedience. As much as our children need to learn to obey parents so they’ll learn to yield their wills to God, I wish we’d had more teaching on the rest of children’s development. I appreciate your doing that here.
I was part of that same era—Dare to Discipline! The only thing that saved my life is that the internet hadn’t been invented yet, so my perpetual research was limited to books and magazines.
We recently experienced a big emotion from our five-year old granddaughter who spent the night with us, and became very upset that bedtime came much too soon, even though we’d let her stay up longer than usual. Talking to her definitely didn’t work! But my husband suddenly suggested we go outside, look at the stars and find the Big Dipper. The distraction worked, she calmed down, and we were able to start the bedtime routine. She fell asleep before I finished singing our nighttime songs. BUT! I wish I’d had this article so the next morning we could have talked about what she had been feeling and why and what we can all do differently the next time she’s disappointed by circumstances. Thank you again, Michele, for your wisdom and insights!
Sounds as if you married a genius! And it never ceases to amaze me how creative kids can be in finding ways to catch us completely off guard. I am working hard at relaxing into the unexpected instead of freaking out because things veered off course.
I needed this 30+ years ago! It’s a tough combo to manage — we as moms have our own emotions, yet we are supposed to stay steady and calm as little people (and teenage people) have emotional meltdowns all around us. Now that’s a tough role to fill! I like to take it one step further — dig down past the emotions to see what thoughts are generating the emotions — kind of like getting the weed by the roots. Sometimes if we can help adjust the thinking, the emotions will follow suit. It only took me 30+ years to learn this lol. Great post!
Goodness, Bev, this is solid gold wisdom. In all areas of life, let’s allow truth to INFORM our feelings!