Tantrums and Emotions: Helping your little one by Talking about Feelings

little girl having a tantrum on the floor

Small people can have big emotions. A crucial time for parents to teach coping skills to their children is when they are young. There are the commonly known periods, such as “terrible twos and threes” and “the teenage years” where developing emotions are either forming or being heightened by hormones. But the truth is, managing feelings is a lifelong effort, at any stage. The more you help your little one recognize their emotions, the better you will recognize your own. Here are some ways you can help temper the tide of tantrums.

Identify Feelings

Once something is identified, it immediately becomes more manageable. When your child understands what is happening to them as they experience a feeling, they are one step closer to dealing with that feeling in a healthy way. From a very young age, start naming their feelings as they display them. “You are so happy with that kite!” “You are angry at your brother.” “You are sad that your goldfish died.” “You feel disappointed that you can’t have what you want.” “You feel relieved that the bird got away from the cat.”

pouting toddler

Teach Cool Down Methods

Most emotions people need help managing are intense ones. It is difficult for anyone to reason when their feelings are taking over. Make some intentional time when your child is not in a height of emotion to discuss useful cooldown methods. Taking a deep breath and slowly exhaling three times is a good go-to. Deep breathing increases the supply of oxygen to your brain and nervous system. It promotes a state of calm and helps you relax. The slow increase of oxygen clears your mind of the stress hormones stirring things up. Time-outs are helpful in certain circumstances, too. A time-out can give the needed pause before our reaction brings regret. It can also provide space to reflect on a regrettable action afterward.

Give Alternatives for Releasing Difficult Emotions

Sometimes intense feelings merely need an appropriate outlet. Never pretend that your child simply should not have emotions. Feelings are normal and everyone has them. The key is to promote healthy ways of releasing them. Give your child practical solutions for handling their feelings, as well as outlining what is not acceptable. For example, “It is OKAY to feel mad. But it is NOT okay to hit your sister when you are mad. You CAN hit a pillow on your bed when you feel mad.” You have identified their emotion, told them what unacceptable behavior is, and given them an alternative solution to releasing that emotion.

Don’t Hide Your Own Emotions From Your Child

Talk your feelings out with your kids. This will normalize emotions for them. It will also help them see that feelings are felt by everybody. When you are upset, verbalize that, and then verbalize what you would like to do, versus what you will actually do. For instance, “That dry cleaner owner was very rude to me. It made me feel like yelling or being rude back. It made me angry.” In private, let them hear you analyze or ponder the “why” behind the other person’s actions. “I don’t know why he was acting that way. He let his bad mood affect his behavior toward others.” Let your child hear you talk out what your options of problem-solving are. “I could act on my feelings, or stay calm. I could throw a fit at him. I could tell him that his behavior is upsetting. Or I can simply leave and take my business to a different dry cleaner.” These types of examples will demonstrate the valuable lesson that, while we cannot control the behavior of others, we can control how we respond. It will also help them see that, while adults experience high emotions too, they (hopefully) do not throw a tantrum in response. If one or more adult is having a hard time managing their emotions themselves, kids see that. Don’t pretend it doesn’t exist. Instead, learn from it together. For example, if you slammed a door too hard when you were upset, own up to it. This will teach your kids that accountability matters.

boy crying on the floor

Explain Action/Reaction

When your kids start understanding cause and effect, they will start understanding the importance of consequences. Use language that will help them tie the connections together. “If… …then” is a valuable addition to their self-awareness. Try to only use this when the “thens” are consistent. For example, “If you eat your dinner, then you will not be hungry later and you will grow.” Teaching consequences is just as important when the results are positive as when they are negative. Do not only enforce the negative consequences with your kids, such as, “If you don’t clean your room, then you are not going to play.” But also show them that consequences can be good, too. “If you clean your room, then you get to play!” Show them that their behavior, good and bad, brings results. The book “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie,” by Laura Numeroff is an excellent resource for outlining this. Some of the mouse’s actions are mischievous, while others are harmless.

Play Cause and Effect Games

As Fred Rogers, of ‘Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood’ wisely said, “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” Children learn through play. Not only can you roleplay emotions with your kids through their toys (dolls and stuffed animals are terrific ways to practice or reenact circumstances to learn from), but there are also games that will teach kids how to grasp these concepts better. Lining up Dominos and watching one hit another is a great tool. It gives a consistent visual of cause and effect.

Use Examples in Media

There are plenty of good children’s books and television shows that help identify and work through emotions for kids. If there is a particular area that your child is struggling to manage, like anger or jealousy, don’t be afraid to rely on examples given in media to help them cope. Then talk it out with your kids. “Elmo was feeling very lonely and sad. What did he do to work through those feelings?” or “Curious George let his feelings of excitement take over. It made him forget what he was told. Excitement is a good feeling, but it also has to be controlled or there are consequences. What were the consequences to George not controlling his excitement?”

Tapping into tools to identify and manage emotions will benefit your entire household. It can aid your children and you in your relationships with each other and with the world. It takes intentional practice and patience to manage emotions, but the benefits are well worth the effort.