How to Help a Highly Emotional Child Cope With Big Feelings

How to help an emotional child. Child dropped ice cream and cries. Mom tries to soothe her kid.

Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight

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, feel frustrated faster, and get overly excited compared to their peers too.

The ability to regulate big emotions is largely dependent on age and development. Experiencing things more intensely is also sometimes just part of who someone is.

Big emotions can make life a little bit more difficult for these kids unless they learn how to engage in emotion regulation. While this is naturally learned over time, there are ways you can help your child cultivate emotional awareness and adopt healthy coping skills.

Teach Your Child About Emotions

It’s important for your child to recognize and define how they are feeling. Start teaching them about emotions so they learn that things that may seem amorphous or overwhelming actually have a name.

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 surprised that those boys were being so 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, ask questions such as, “How do you think this character feels?” With practice, your child’s ability to label their emotions will improve.

Emotional awareness can help kids be mentally strong, even when they feel emotions deeply.

Separate Feelings vs. 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, for example, 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.

While they have every right to be mad at someone, for example, that does not give them permission to hit them. Likewise, they can feel upset that the store is out of their favorite ice cream, but that doesn't mean it's OK to roll around on the floor crying and disrupting others.

Discipline behavior, but not 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 and Relate

Sometimes parents inadvertently minimize a child’s feelings. Saying “Stop getting so upset. It’s not a big deal” teaches your child that their feelings are wrong. 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.

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.

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.

Show Acceptance

It's normal to sometimes struggle with knowing how to respond to overly emotional kids. It's also normal to feel confused or overwhelmed by it all.

Though you may not understand why your child feels the way they do, it can help to give them acknowledgement that you understand they are working through some emotions—and that that is OK.

Kids need to learn to recognize, understand, and cope with what they are experiencing, and feeling "seen" and accepted can help tremendously.

Some may call overly emotional kids "wimps" or assume that their sensitivity can be fixed, which is not only potentially hurtful, but untrue. Crying, getting angry, and being frustrated are not bad things, nor are they signs of weakness.

Everyone has a different temperament and sensitivity is just part of your child's. Be sure your child knows that you accept them for who they are.

Teach Emotion Regulation

When it comes to emotion regulation, the ability to regulate big emotions is largely dependent on your child's age and development. Before a child reaches 24 months and sometimes even as old as 36 months, their ability to inhibit behavior is typically low.

This doesn't mean you can't start teaching them how to manage their emotions, though. By the time they start preschool, many kids have the skills needed to begin learning how to regulate their emotions.

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. (Try telling them to "smell a flower, then blow up a balloon" to master this.) You may do this with them a few times in a moment of upset, but encourage them to employ this on their own when needed.
  • 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 step out of the classroom for a sip of water or a minute of privacy when they need to collect themself. Make it clear to your child that they can do this before they potentially 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, scratch-and-sniff stickers, pictures that your child enjoys, and 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—maybe no one wants to play with them because they cry all the time, or they're unable to participate in physical education because they get angry if they lose—work together to address the problem. Ask them for their input on what strategies might help. 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 engage in one of these 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:

  • 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 or yelling at their sibling are good ways 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 strategy for attracting 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. And if they see you getting worked up over their tears, they may 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 themselves. 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 helpful 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.”

Challenging Your Child

You might decide there are times when it makes sense to spare your child from upsetting events. If you know a sad movie is being shown at a sleepover, for example, you might encourage your child to opt out if you know they'll struggle to pull themself together after watching it.

However, excusing your child from every tough challenge or all of the realities of life is counterproductive. For their own success and quality of life, your child needs some practice learning how to handle a variety of emotions in a variety of settings.

Maybe you are considering letting your child skip a school field day because you know they have trouble controlling their frustration and you worry they will have a meltdown if their team loses the kickball tournament. While that may be tempting, a situation like this is bound to happen more than once in life, and practice navigating it can be quite valuable.

Make sure you are giving them ample opportunities to manage their big feelings instead of sheltering them from all difficult scenarios. Follow your gut as to what feels right for your child.

When to Seek Professional Help

While emotional regulation learning begins in one's toddler years, research shows that it generally takes kids until they are 8 or 9 to really have significant control of it. So, it's very possible that even children who aren't normally overly emotional by nature may go through a period where it seems like the tears keep coming or they are experiencing angry outbursts a lot.

While it’s unlikely that there’s cause for concern, it’s still worth checking in with your pediatrician to make sure there's not something fueling what you're observing (for example, an undiagnosed ear infection, another medical condition, or a psychological issue). This is especially important if your child is young and has a hard time communicating.

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 in 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 anger, they may need some extra support.

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.

Thankfully, researchers believe that interventions addressing self-regulatory behaviors may help kids make better progress.

Once a medical or psychological 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 you need help learning ways you can best do that for your child, speak with your child's care team.

A Word From Verywell

Try to remember that learning to manage one's emotions requires an awareness and skills that young children are still developing. Even then, for some kids, being overly emotional is just an in-born characteristic.

A little extra support, direction, and patience from you may be all they need to learn how to handle their emotions in appropriate ways. The process can be overwhelming at times, but the work you put into it can benefit your child for a lifetime.

Keep in mind that there can be a significant plus side to this, too: Kids with big emotions usually feel all emotions intensely. This means that while your overly emotional child may feel extreme anger, they may also be very empathetic or a passionate leader. While they may feel frustration at a level 10, they may feel happiness and excitement at that level too.

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