How to Help a Highly Emotional Child Cope With Big Feelings

Crying young girl

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At any age, crying is a normal response to being overwhelmed by strong feelings, like anger, fear, stress, or even happiness. Some children, however, cry more than others. Those same children may get angry more often, may feel frustrated faster, and may get overly excited compared to their peers too.

While there’s certainly nothing wrong with an overly emotional child, it can make life a little bit more difficult for them. Here are several tips for helping your child have emotional awareness and healthy coping skills.

Teach Your Child About Emotions

It’s important for your child to recognize their feelings. Start teaching them about them emotions by naming the feelings for them.

Say, “You look sad right now,” or “I can tell you are mad.” Name your emotions too by saying, “I am sad that we can’t go visit Grandma today,” or “I’m angry that those boys were being mean today.”

You can also strike up conversations about feelings by talking about characters in books or on TV shows. Every once in a while and ask questions such as, “How do you think this character feels?” With practice, your child’s ability to label their emotions will improve.

Explain Feelings and Behaviors

It’s also important for children to learn how to express their emotions in a socially appropriate manner. Screaming loudly in the middle of the grocery store or throwing a temper tantrum at school isn’t OK.

Tell children that they can feel any emotion they want—and it’s OK to feel really angry or really scared. But, make it clear that they have choices in how they respond to those uncomfortable feelings.

So even though they feel angry, it’s not OK to hit. Or just because they feel sad, doesn’t mean they can roll around on the floor crying when it disrupts other people.

Discipline their behavior but not their emotions. Say, “You are going to time-out because you hit your brother,” or “You are losing this toy for the rest of the day because you are screaming and it hurts my ears.”

Validate Their Feelings

Sometimes parents inadvertently minimize a child’s feelings. But that sends the wrong message. Saying, “Stop getting so upset. It’s not a big deal” will teach your child that their feelings are wrong. But feelings are OK—even if you think they seem out of proportion.

Whether you think they're mad, sad, frustrated, embarrassed, or disappointed, put a name to it. Then, demonstrate you understand how they feel and be empathetic. So while saying, “I know you are mad we aren’t going to the park today,” shows you understand they're angry, it may come across as a little harsh.

Instead say, “I know you are upset we aren’t going to the park today. I get angry when I don’t get to do things I want to do too.” That extra element reinforces to your child that everyone feels those emotions sometimes (even if they aren’t as often or as intense as they feel them).

At the same time, help your child understand that emotions can be fleeting and the way they feel now won’t last forever—or even necessarily more than a few minutes.

Realizing that their feelings, as well as tears, come and go can help a child stay a little bit calmer in the midst of an emotional moment.

Sometimes parents struggle with knowing how to respond to overly emotional kids, but remind yourself that being emotional doesn’t make a child weak and crying is not a bad thing. It's OK if kids have intense feelings. Kids just need to learn to recognize and understand their emotions. In fact, emotional awareness can help kids be mentally strong—even when they feel those emotions deeply.

You also should never call your child a wimp or assume that their sensitivity can be fixed. Everyone has a different temperament and sensitivity is part of your child's natural temperament. Be sure your child knows that you accept them for who they are.

Teach Emotion Regulation

Just because your child feels their emotions intensely, doesn’t mean they need to let their feelings control them. When they're upset, they can learn to calm themself down.

When they wake up in a grumpy mood, they can learn to cheer themself up. And they can find ways to cope with uncomfortable situations in a healthy way. Here are some helpful skills to teach your child so they can learn to manage their emotions.

  • Practice deep breathing. Teach your child how to breathe in slowly and quietly through their nose and then out through their mouth. Repeat a few more times, until they have a grasp on their tears.
  • Count to calm down. Teach your child to distract themself from upsetting thoughts by counting. Counting ceiling tiles, counting to 10, or counting down from 100 are just a few mental tasks that might reduce their distress.
  • Take a break. Allow your child to give themself a brief time-out or ask a teacher if they can have a minute to collect themself, whether it’s going to get a drink or water or stepping into another room for a minute. Make it clear to your child that they can place themself in time-out before they get sent there for misbehavior. Then, they'll be in control of deciding when they're ready to come out.
  • Create a calm-down kit. Fill a box with items that help your child calm down (or cheer up). Coloring books and crayons, lotion that smells good, pictures that your child enjoys, or soothing music are just a few things that can engage their senses and help them manage their emotions.
  • Problem-solve with your child. If your child’s emotions are causing problems for them—such as no one wants to play with them because they cry all the time or they're unable to participate in physical education because they cry or get angry if they lose—work together to address the problem. Ask for their input into what strategies might help them. They may develop some creative solutions with your support.
  • Identify mood boosters. Talk to your child about the things they like to do when they feel happy, like playing outside, reading a joke book, or singing their favorite songs. Write those things down and tell them those are their mood boosters. When they're feeling bad, encourage them to do one of their mood boosters to help them cope with their feelings.

Avoid Reinforcing Outbursts

The way you respond to your child’s emotions makes a big difference. Sometimes parents inadvertently encourage kids to have emotional outbursts. If you’re working on helping your child regulate their emotions better, it’s best to avoid the following:

  • Rewarding your child for calming down: If you offer your child a special treat every time they pull themself together, they may learn that bursting into tears is a good way to get something they want.
  • Showering your child with attention: While it’s important to offer comfort, make sure you don’t overdo it. You don’t want your child to learn that getting upset is the best way to attract your attention.
  • Calming your child down constantly: It’s helpful to offer reassurance, but it’s also important to teach your child the skills they're going to need to calm themself down so they can handle their emotions when you’re not there to step in and help.
  • Telling your child to stop crying: Telling your child to stop crying might make them more upset. If they see you getting worked up over their tears, they will think they're doing something wrong—and that won’t make it any easier to stop crying.
  • Announcing that your child is sensitive: If you warn every teacher, coach, or friend’s parent that your child is sensitive, you may be sending a message that they can’t handle their feelings. While it's useful to offer some insight into your child's temperament, it's not a requirement. Only offer this information if you think it will provide some insight or allow them to alter their approach when interacting with your child. Be sure you keep it positive by saying things like, “My child feels big emotions.”

When to Challenge Your Child

You might decide there are times when it makes sense to spare your child from upsetting events. If the school is watching a sad movie, you might decide to let your child opt out, if you know they'll struggle to pull themself together after the movie is over.

But, you don’t want to excuse your child from tough challenges or all of the realities of life.

Your child needs some practice learning how to handle their emotions in a socially acceptable manner. And just because they're overly emotional doesn’t mean they should miss out on life.

Quite often, emotional kids experience all emotions in a big way. So that means your child may enjoy positive emotions, like happiness and excitement, to their fullest extent as well. And you don’t want to squash their ability to feel all of those big feelings.

When to Seek Professional Help

Even children who aren’t normally overly emotional may go through a period where it seems like the tears keep coming. While it’s unlikely that there’s a cause for concern, it’s worth checking in with your pediatrician (especially if your child is young and has a hard time communicating) to ensure there’s not an undiagnosed ear infection or language problem that hasn’t been detected.

When a medical problem has been ruled out, you can take measures to help your child learn how to regulate their emotions at key times, so it doesn’t become an issue as they grow up.

If your child has always been emotional, there’s probably no cause for concern. But, if they suddenly seem to have more trouble managing emotions, talk to your pediatrician.

You should also seek professional help for your child if their emotions are causing problems for their everyday life. If they're crying so much during the school day that they can’t concentrate in class or if they're struggling to maintain friendships because they can’t control their emotions, they may need some extra support.

In fact, studies have demonstrated a connection between dysregulation and a variety of mental health issues as kids get older including everything from anxiety, depression, and substance abuse to suicide ideation, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and aggression. However, the researchers speculate that interventions addressing self-regulatory behaviors may help kids make better progress. So, don't hesitate to talk to your child's doctor about your concerns.

A Word From Verywell

Dealing with an overly emotional child can be challenging at times but try to keep the bigger picture in mind. Kids with big emotions usually feel all emotions intensely. So, this means your overly emotional child also may be intensely empathetic or a passionate leader. Rather than let the difficult moments overwhelm you, remind yourself that this in-born characteristic also comes with some benefits.

In the meantime, make sure you are teaching your child how to manage their big feelings. A little extra support and direction from you may be all they need to learn how to handle their big feelings in appropriate ways. Keep working with them and in time they will become skilled at managing their feelings.

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Article Sources
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Additional Reading
  • Wyman PA, Cross W, Brown CH, Yu Q, Tu X, Eberly S. Intervention to Strengthen Emotional Self-Regulation in Children with Emerging Mental Health Problems: Proximal Impact on School Behavior. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. 2010;38(5):707-720. 
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