Discipline Your Child's Behavior, Not Their Emotions

young child screaming

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Kids can be overly dramatic by nature. To adults, their emotions seem irrational and completely out of proportion with the situation. But that's OK. They're allowed to feel whatever they want—even if you don't feel the same way they do. Of course, that doesn't mean they can behave however they want. 

Correct your child for breaking the rules, hurting other people, or behaving in socially inappropriate ways. At the same time, let them know it's OK to feel angry, sad, scared, excited, or whatever other emotion they experience.

Avoid Minimizing Emotions

Kids who believe, “I shouldn’t feel sad,” will go to great lengths to avoid grief. But that’s not healthy. Grief is a healing process and should not be avoided. Similarly, kids who think, “Being mad isn’t good,” may paste on a smile and refuse to speak up for themselves.

In actuality, anger isn’t bad. It’s how kids choose to deal with their anger that can lead to healthy or unhealthy choices. Your goal shouldn’t be to change your child’s emotions. Avoid saying things like:

  • "Quit being so overdramatic."
  • "Don’t get so mad over something so small."
  • "Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about."
  • "You’re freaking out over nothing."
  • "Don't be such a baby."
  • "Stop worrying about something so silly."

Separate Emotions From Behavior

Differentiate between what your child does and how they feel. Anger is a feeling and hitting is a behavior. Sadness is a feeling and screaming is a behavior.

Rather than trying to force your child not to feel certain things, teach them how to deal with uncomfortable emotions.

For example, proactively teach anger management techniques. Show your child that feeling angry is normal, but throwing a temper tantrum isn’t healthy. Then, make them understand that they won't face consequences for their feelings, but they will if they express their emotions by misbehaving.

Understanding their emotions and responding appropriately is an important part of your child's cognitive development. In fact, when kids have a solid grasp on their emotions, research has shown that they do better in school and have more positive interactions with their peers and their teachers.

Show How to Handle Discomfort

Sometimes parents think that raising a mentally strong child is about raising an unemotional child. But that’s not true. Mentally strong kids recognize their emotions and then choose healthy ways to cope with those feelings.

One study of preschool children found that regularly talking about emotions and labeling them improves a child's ability to understand terms associated with emotions. Additionally, by talking about emotions, even at a young age, you can improve your child's emotion comprehension.

Teach your child that they can handle uncomfortable feelings, like anxiety. When they're scared to step up in front of the whole school at the spelling bee, they’ll be willing to give it a try if you've given them the skills to face their fears. If, however, you send the message that anxiety is bad, they may avoid doing things that cause them to feel anxious.

Similarly, show your child that uncomfortable emotions are a part of life. And sometimes, you have to behave contrary to how you feel.

For example, talk about how you still treat others kindly, even on days where you feel grumpy. Show your child that on days where you feel sad, you still go to work. Make it clear that sometimes you have to get things done, even when you don’t feel like it.

Teach Kids to Manage Emotions

When you teach your child that their emotions are OK and that they can find socially appropriate ways to deal with those emotions, you'll likely see a big improvement in their behavior. Follow these steps to help your child manage their emotions and control their behavior.

  • Label your child’s emotions. Teach your child to name their feelings so they can begin to develop a better understanding of their emotions. Say something like, “It looks like you’re feeling really disappointed that we aren’t going to the park today.”
  • Teach healthy coping skills. Proactively teach your child how to cope with discomfort in a positive manner. Show them that they can color a picture when they're sad or that they can play outside when they're angry.
  • Show your child that they have some control. If they're in a bad mood, talk about how certain behaviors—like sulking in their room—are likely to keep them stuck in a bad mood. Explain how other choices—such as playing a fun game—could cheer them up.
  • Discipline your child for inappropriate behavior. If your child breaks their sibling's toy when they're angry, give them a consequence. Make it clear that they won’t be punished for their feelings, but they will be given consequences for breaking the rules.
  • Avoid accepting emotions as an excuse. If your child says they can’t do their homework because they're sad, don’t allow them to get out of doing the work. With rare exception, hold them accountable for their behavior. Rare exceptions may include things like dealing with a death in the family or another family emergency.

A Word From Verywell

As your child grows up, they'll gain better control over their emotions. But that doesn't mean they won't struggle throughout their grade school and teen years. Childhood can be an emotional roller coaster.

Look for teachable moments to coach your child. And be prepared to work on managing your own emotions better. Your child will learn a lot about emotions by the way you respond to obstacles, difficult people, and setbacks.

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Article Sources
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  1. Sprung M, Münch HM, Harris PL, Ebesutani C, Hofmann SG. Children's emotion understanding: A meta-analysis of training studiesDev Rev. 2015;37:41-65. doi:10.1016/j.dr.2015.05.001

  2. Gavazzi IG, Ornaghi V. Emotional state talk and emotion understanding: A training study with preschool children. J Child Lang. 2011;38(5):1124-39. doi:10.1017/S0305000910000772

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