How to help a child understand and cope with their emotions

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Find out how you can help your child cope with difficult emotions by learning and talking about them.

Key points

  • Children learn about emotions through trying things, practising new habits and getting feedback from people around them.
  • Helping your child recognize and identify their emotions is the first step in helping them manage their emotions.
  • Helping your child understand why they feel a certain way and what triggers it will help them deal with difficult emotions.
  • When a child can make the link between their thoughts, their emotions and their behaviour, they are less likely to struggle when difficult emotions occur.

Children learn about emotions in the same way that they learn other things such as reading, writing, riding a bike or bladder control: through trying things, practising new habits and getting feedback from people around them.

Just like the other things that children learn, the skills for managing emotions come easier to some children than to others. Learning these skills from a range of sources, including parents, siblings, friends and the media, can lead children to pick up some useful and some less useful ways to handle their feelings. As a parent, your role is to encourage your child to practise the coping methods that work best.

Help your child recognize their emotions

The first step in helping your child manage emotions is to help your child identify them. One useful tool is a "feelings list". This is a set of words or phrases that you can use with a child to talk about their emotions and any physical sensations. For difficult emotions, the list can include words such as "sad", "scared", "angry" or "confused" and words to identify sensations in different parts of the body such as "tight", "shaky", "pain", "sweaty" and "heart", "stomach" or "hands". These feeling words can be especially useful for younger children, who might find it easier to talk about their heart beating very fast or having tight fists, for example, instead of what they are thinking or feeling.

You can choose whatever words work best for your own feelings list. Remember, too, to include some positive feelings in the list, such as "excited", "happy" or "proud" so that you and your child can also acknowledge times when things are going well.

Once your child is familiar with the chosen words and phrases, encourage them to use them for any negative emotions, especially when you notice an obvious change in their behaviour. Remember, no matter what a child says, it is important to always listen and keep the lines of communication open.

Help your child identify the triggers for difficult emotions

Once your child tells you what they are feeling, you can then help them understand why they feel this way. Identifying the trigger, or cause, of an emotion can be difficult for a child, but you can make it easier by encouraging them to be honest with you and themselves.

Common triggers can include an argument with a brother or sister, a bad day at school or a phobia or fear. Remember, though, that each child is unique and that something that does not bother one child could be a very real trigger for another. If your child feels upset or scared, assure them that this is normal. You can also remind them that recognizing the cause of their feelings makes them better able to come up with different ways to handle similar triggers in the future.

Help your child cope with their emotions

When your child can name their feelings and their cause, you can help them understand that they have a choice in how they cope with difficult emotions. One useful approach is to help your child create a story that explains the link between their emotions and any thoughts and behaviour. When a child does this they can more easily understand that emotions happen for a reason and that there is more than one way to handle a situation.

You could help your child create a story about a negative feeling by asking them what happened, what they thought, what they felt (including feelings in their body) and what they did or thought next. This approach works especially well with younger children, who need more prompts to help tell the story of their feelings in small steps. You can also help your child share their feelings by talking openly about your own emotions and how you deal with them.

When a child can make the link between their thoughts, their emotions and their behaviour, they are less likely to struggle when difficult emotions occur. This is because your child learns to reflect on their reactions to triggers and, over time, identifies what they might do differently in the future.

Online support for your child and their emotions

AboutKidsHealth has developed a game, called Monarch's Mission, for children aged 11 and under to help them make healthy choices when dealing with difficult situations or emotions. The game uses the theme of space exploration to present some common situations that can be challenging for children and help them make connections between situations and their feelings and behaviours.

Last updated: September 10th 2013