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Help your child cope with difficult feelings

Tantrums, outbreaks of jealousy, anger or "defiance". It is not always easy to understand your child’s strong emotions and see them from his perspective.

Mother talking to daughter lying in bed.

If you can help your child to recognize and cope with what is happening, he gets to know his own feelings better, as well as being better equipped to deal with them later. When you try to take your child’s perspective in both good and difficult feelings, you help him recognize and cope with what is happening.

It’s easier to deal with feelings we recognize

We all experience feelings that can be difficult to deal with. Painful feelings, such as fear, sorrow, anger or frustration, can be perceived as both intimidating and confusing. Often, we are simply reacting to a feeling of discomfort. Sometimes, for example, we may get angry when we are in fact scared, envious, hurt or when we experience that demands on us are too great. When we recognize and understand the distress, it may be easier to deal with, because we get another opportunity to regulate ourselves.

Perhaps you have experienced the immediate inclination to say no to an invitation. If you recognize that the discomfort you feel is actually fear of not having anyone to talk to at the event, you can understand yourself better. Then you can choose if you want to let the fear stop you from going, or if you are prepared to take the chance that things will be okay.

In the same way, understanding that the thought of speaking in front of an audience makes you nervous may help you get the courage to complete the speech. You know that it is a perfectly normal feeling that most people have in similar situations. With this in mind, you may be able to challenge yourself to do what is perceived as scary.

Security and comfort

Have you thought about how sensitive small babies’ “alarm systems” are? When they feel troubled, they cry so that we come to calm them down. Older children also need different types of support to understand that emotions are not dangerous, but completely natural and common to have.

If the child is angry, she needs someone to help her calm down. If the child is scared, she needs someone to make her feel safe. If the child is upset, she needs to be comforted. In the same way, teenagers need understanding when they are embarrassed by their dental braces.

What's going on inside your child’s head?

Children often need help from adults to understand why they feel what they feel. The above example illustrates that the need doesn't disappear, even as the child gets older. Just imagine the number of "new" and complicated feelings that arise during adolescence. When you help your child understand his feelings and accept these as perfectly normal, he will feel more secure.

Some of us are more likely to show and talk about feelings than others. Some of the feelings your child shows may be easier to accept than others. For example, for an adult, it may be easier to accept a child who is upset than a child who is furious. How tolerant we are in relation to different feelings varies a lot from person to person, from family to family and from culture to culture.

What feelings do you find it difficult to accept?

Express feelings in words

It doesn’t take much before children become overwhelmed or confused by their own feelings and as a result feel restless and uneasy. It can be difficult to understand and empathize with this as an adult. We understand that the man in the store is not dangerous, that we have to stand in line without getting too impatient, or that it is normal to feel uneasy when you are in love.

Nevertheless, it is important that you as an adult try to understand what your child feels. You can do that by trying to put into words what your child is experiencing, saying something like: "I think you got a bit upset, now", or: "Did you get a bit disappointed now?”

The words help the child best if you also show understanding of the child in other ways, such as showing compassion in your face and conveying warmth in your voice.

You can try to understand what your child feels, experiences, and put this into words together: "The first day of school can be a bit scary, there are a lot of new people and it takes time to get to know them." Or: "What happened? Are you angry? Or are you mainly scared?” Then the child learns to understand, recognize, and deal with his own feelings.

Understanding, not taking away

When we feel understood, it is easier to feel safe and calm. It’s like that for adults too. Maybe especially when you feel a little silly, scared or embarrassed about something. In that case, it's good if someone understands you and tells you that they like you anyway.

As a mum or dad, your main task is to try to understand, not to take away the feeling. If the five-year-old falls and hurts himself, it may help to put words on it: "I can see that you’ve hurt yourself," rather than trying to divert his attention.

It can be both uncomfortable and difficult for us to enter unhappy situations without trying to fix things. We want to help, so that our child will feel better!

Do not trivialize the child's feelings

"Never mind", we might say, "this will be fine!”

But how much real help is there in such a statement? If you were dreading going on a plane or to the dentist’s, that’s probably not what you’d want to hear?

By belittling children's experiences and feelings, we risk that they come to think that difficult emotions are something they will bottle up and not talk about.

For reflection: How can you help?

How do you best help a child who is overwhelmed by her emotions?

What do you say to

  • an angry three-year-old who grabs his friend's toy away from him?
  • an unhappy six-year-old who has been "dumped" by her best friend?
  • a big sister who lies down in the new baby’s pram?
  • a twelve-year-old who has just seen Star Wars, who is both scared and a little bit embarrassed because he’s scared?
  • a desperate thirteen-year-old who thinks his grade on the maths test is really bad?

Sometimes you provide the best help by just being there and talking about the difficult feelings together with your child