Teaching Kids How To Cope With Their 'Big Feelings'

by Meredith Ethington
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If you’ve ever watched your toddler throw themselves on the floor in a heap of hysteria, or watched your tween slam doors in your face and let out ear-piercing screams for something seemingly insignificant, meanwhile thinking to yourself, “What the hell is happening here?” then you might be a parent.

The longer I’m a parent, the more I realize that a big part of my job is just helping my kids deal with their (very big) emotions — because OMG do they have big emotions. My middle child’s ambulance-like wails when he’s angry, sad, or just hungry are a testament to big emotions, and then there’s the fact that his hunger pains are actually painful — for everybody.

While the root of the feelings might often seem silly to us, to kids, they are very real. And they don’t know how to figure out how to deal with it. They aren’t equipped yet. That’s why they need parents. Let’s just hope we know how to get our own crap together and regulate our own emotions first.

But if you still struggle in that department (like I do), it’s okay. No parent is perfect, and losing our cool happens to the best of us, and all of a sudden, we find ourselves apologizing for yelling when we were trying so freaking hard to stay calm. That’s normal, and I might even say it’s healthy for our kids to see us trying to regulate our own emotions too.

In fact, I’d say that the first way to help your kids learn how to effectively regulate their emotions is to be an example for them. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve lost it just because my kids have selective hearing and do not listen to 99% of the words coming out of my mouth. It’s hard to deal with those frustrations every single day as a parent. I’m not going to lie, it straight-up makes me angry some days. And sometimes, okay a lot of the time, it shows.

But if I want my kids to learn to self-regulate when they get upset about something, I better learn how to control it and let them know I’m controlling it. Think about telling your kids how upset you are and letting them know that you need a moment by yourself in your room. Just a simple act like that can show them how to deal next time they are ticked off about something that didn’t go their way. Modeling good management of emotions is a powerful way to teach them how to control their own.

Accept your kids’ feelings too. Sometimes a kid just wants to know that they are allowed to feel the way they do. I know that I’d love for someone to follow me around when I get cut off in traffic or forget my grocery list at the store and whisper in my ear, “It’s okay. You have every right to be upset right now.” Well, parents can be that voice in their child’s ear to reassure them that it’s okay to be sad or angry. In fact, it normalizes their feelings. And we can’t teach them how to effectively cope with their emotions unless they know that what they are experiencing is normal and valid.

And let’s not forget that we shouldn’t punish our kids for being human. Everyone has a bad day, even our kids. Let your child know that it’s okay to feel these big feelings and everyone in the human race experiences disappointment, sadness, and anger.

After acknowledging their feelings and modeling good behavior, the next thing to do is to teach your kids simple coping skills. I don’t think I learned a single coping skill until I was about 38 years old, and I do not want that for my children.

Before that, my coping skills consisted mostly of napping and curling up in a ball and sobbing. Not exactly useful. But kids want to be able to compartmentalize these feelings or work through them in a healthy way — they just don’t know how.

Coping skills can be tailor-made for your child. Maybe teaching your kid how to deep breathe is laughable. That’s okay — there are other approaches. I had a therapist tell me once that she used to give her daughter old magazines and phone books to go into her room and rip apart to deal with her anger. It actually worked to calm her down because she needed to physically do something to feel better. As she got older, she learned to cope with exercise and physical activity instead.

Kids are unique, and finding the right coping skills to help them deal with life’s challenges is something that doesn’t happen right away. I have one child who just can’t do the deep breathing, but she likes to listen to music to distract her. Help your child realize that even though big feelings happen, there are solutions to make them easier to endure.

We also need to realize that our role as a parent is to just be there for support. We can’t fix a lot of our kids’ problems even though we want to. Life can suck even if you’re only 3 years old and can’t find your lovey or don’t get that toy you begged your mom for at the store.

But what we can do is reassure our children with hugs, words, and by listening to them so they know that we’re always going to be there, especially when life sucks. Being your child’s support system is key to helping them realize they don’t have to deal with all these emotions alone.

To a kid, that is everything. And hopefully they’ll grow up and learn how to manage their emotions sooner and better than their dear-old mom.