Helping a Child Deal With Uncomfortable Emotions

Father and son arguing on sofa
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Mentally strong kids understand that they can be in control of their emotions rather than allowing their emotions to control them. Kids who know how to regulate their feelings can manage their behavior and keep negative thoughts at bay. But, children aren’t born with an understanding of their emotions and they don’t inherently know how to express their feelings in socially appropriate ways.

A child who doesn’t know how to manage his anger may exhibit aggressive behavior and frequent angry outbursts. Similarly, a child who doesn’t know what to do when he feels sad may spend hours pouting by himself.

When children don’t understand their emotions, they may also avoid anything that feels uncomfortable. For example, a child who is really shy in social situations may avoid joining a new activity because she lacks confidence in her ability to tolerate the discomfort associated with trying new things.

Teaching kids to regulate their emotions can reduce a lot of behavior problems. A child who understands her emotions will also be better prepared to deal with uncomfortable situations and she’s more likely to perform at her peak. With coaching and practice, kids can learn that they can cope with their feelings in a healthy manner.

Teach Personal Responsibility

While it’s healthy for kids to experience a wide array of emotions, it’s equally important for them to recognize they have some control over their feelings. A child who had a rough day at school can choose after-school activities that boost her mood. And a child who is angry about something her brother did can find ways to calm herself down.

Teach your child about feelings and help her understand that intense emotions shouldn’t serve as an excuse to justify misbehavior. Feeling angry doesn’t give her a right to hit someone and feelings of sadness don’t have to lead to moping around for hours on end.

Teach your child that he’s responsible for her own behavior and it’s not acceptable to blame others for her feelings. If your child hits her brother and claims it because he made her mad, correct her terminology. Explain that everyone is in charge of their own feelings and their own behavior. While her brother may have influenced her behavior, he didn’t make her feel anything.

It’s equally important to remind your child that she’s not in charge of other people’s emotions. If she makes a healthy choice, and someone else becomes angry, that’s OK. It’s an important lesson that kids need to be reinforced throughout their lives, so they can resist peer pressure and make healthy decisions for themselves. Instilling good values and strong character will give your child confidence in her ability to make good decisions, despite other people’s disapproval.

Practice Tolerating Uncomfortable Emotions

Uncomfortable emotions often serve a purpose. If you’re standing on the edge of a cliff, anxiety is a normal emotional response that is meant to alert us to danger. But, sometimes we experience fear and anxiety unnecessarily.

Teach your child that just because she feels nervous about something, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad idea. For example, if she’s afraid to join the soccer team because she’s nervous she won’t know any of the other kids, encourage her to play anyway. Facing her fears—when it’s safe to do so—will help her see she’s capable of more than she thinks.

Sometimes kids become so used to avoiding the discomfort that they begin to lose confidence in themselves. They think, “I could never do that, it’d be too scary.” As a result, they miss out on a lot of opportunities in life.

Gently push your child to step outside her comfort zone. Praise her efforts and make it clear that you care more about her willingness to try, rather than the outcome. Teach her how to use mistakes, failure, and uncomfortable situations as opportunities to learn and grow better.

How to Help Change a Child's Negative Mood

Children’s moods are often highly dependent upon external circumstances. A child may be happy while she’s playing and sad moments later when it’s time to leave. Then, her mood may quickly shift to excitement when she learns she’ll be stopping for ice cream on the way home.

Teach your child that her moods don’t have to depend completely on external circumstances. Instead, she can have some control over how she feels, regardless of the situation.

Empower your child to take steps to improve her mood. That doesn’t mean she has to suppress her emotions or ignore them, but it does mean she can take steps to help herself feel better so she doesn’t get stuck in a bad mood. Pouting, isolating himself, or complaining for hours will only keep her feeling bad.

Help your child identify choices she can make to calm herself down when she’s angry or cheer herself up when she’s feeling bad. Identify specific activities that can boost her mood. While coloring may help one child calm down, another child may benefit from playing outside to burn off energy.

Identify specific choices your child can make when she’s feeling bad and encourage her to practice trying to help herself feel better. When you catch her moping, for example, try saying, “I think moping around today may make you stay stuck in a bad mood. I wonder what you could do to help your mood?” Encouraging your child to get active or do something different will empower your child to take control of her emotions in a healthy manner.

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, an international bestselling author of books on mental strength and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. She delivered one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time.