• Dr. Bill Walker

4 Ways To Help Your Child Deal with Negative Emotions

Your child is in a “meltdown.” You feel helpless. You feel frustration, even anger. Strangers stop and look at your child, then they look at you, as if to say, “Do something.”

But you don’t know what to do, except do what you have always done, which has never worked well. You plead, beg, and threaten. It doesn’t work.

Teaching our children to deal with their negative emotions can seem like an overwhelming task. By the time your child “goes nuclear” it is too late to stop the fireworks. But it CAN be done, and you CAN do it.

In today’s post, I want to share with you 4 ways you can help your children learn to manage their negative emotions. Negative emotions include disappointment, anger, and frustration, and each emotion can produce strong emotional reactions from our children.

I. Teach Through Example

Parent, if you cannot control your own negative emotions, the battle is half lost. “Do as I say and not as I do” is empty talk in the eyes of your kids.

Why should you get to pitch a fit, throw a book, and yell to express your feelings but they cannot? Kids have a well-tuned hypocrisy detector and nowhere is it more sensitive than with their own parents.

You must model how to handle negative emotions. When you fail to do so, use your mistake as a teaching moment. Say to your children, “I did not handle my anger well, and I apologize. Instead of yelling at the waitress I should have calmly asked to speak to the manager.”

II. Empathize With Your Child’s Negative Feelings

To empathize is to put yourself in your child's shoes. Try and see the situation from their perspective. Then, respond to your child with this awareness in mind.

Try not to judge your child from your own perspective. What is not upsetting to you may be very upsetting to your child. What may not frighten you may overwhelm your child with fear. You are not your child, and your child is not you. Don’t react to your child as if they are a carbon copy of yourself.

As well, you have a ton of more life-experience than your child. You know monsters don't exist under their bed, and that no ghosts are in their closet. You know this from life experience. They are not convinced yet because they have not lived long enough to become convinced.

The worst thing you can do is belittle and make fun of your kid's negative emotions. “You’re such a baby. There’s no such thing as ghosts.” “Quit being pathetic. Monsters don’t exist.” How is a five-year-old, a child who has only been on this earth for 60 months, supposed to be sure of this?

Instead, make supportive comments like, “I know you are angry at your brother for breaking your toy. I'm sorry he did that. But, you are not allowed to use your anger to do hurtful things. Hitting your brother is unacceptable.”

III. Don’t Rescue Your Child From Their Negative Feelings

Negative feelings are not the problem. It’s how we express and respond to our feelings that matter. Your child needs to be allowed to experience their anger as well as experience the success of appropriately dealing with that anger. If you rush in every time they get upset about something they never learn how to handle strong emotions.

Instead of keeping them from experiencing negative feelings give them feedback and coaching on how to best handle their strong feelings. Say, “I know you are disappointed, but that does not give you the right to scream at your uncle and tell him you hate him. Here are a couple of ways you could have responded more appropriately.” Even better, have your child come up with ways s/he could have responded in a more acceptable manner.

A favorite saying of mine is: “A Smooth Sea Never Made a Skillful Sailor.” It is only by experiencing the emotional storms of life that your child can learn how to respond in the most socially appropriate way.

If you shield them from ever having to deal with negative feelings how will they learn to do so? Resist the urge to rescue and instead help them work through difficult emotions.

IV. Don’t trade feelings for presents, money, food, or electronic devices.

It's tempting to make your child instantly forget" their anger or disappointment by placing a big chocolate chip cookie or $5.00 bill in their hand.

Child/Family psychiatrist Robin Berman warns that this teaches children to look outside themselves to manage their feelings. The result – they will never learn to use their own emotional resources to manage negative emotions.

Using ‘things’ as pacifiers results in people learning to numb and deny their strong feelings. This can lead to becoming emotionally shutdown and dependent, even addicted, to emotional crutches, like alcohol, drugs, sex, food, etc., outside of yourself for coping.

Dr. Berman sums this point up, saying,

"Let your kids work through feelings; don’t try to dam them up. Where we get stuck with our kids is often a great growth opportunity for all of us. Children will not break down from their big feelings, they will learn to work through them.

A big part of mental health is feeling at home with your emotions, knowing that you will not have to avoid feelings, or numb them, but knowing that you have the emotional flexibility and emotional resilience to feel safe with yourself." [1]


Christianly Speaking

i. Children must learn to control their strong emotions

"People who cannot control themselves are like cities without walls to protect them." (Proverbs 25:28 ERV)

ii. Parents are to teach their children God’s ways (including how to act)

"You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise." (Deuteronomy 6:7 ESV)

iii. Children are to follow their parent’s instruction

"Hear, my son, your father's instruction, and forsake not your mother's teaching, for they are a graceful garland for your head and pendants for your neck." (Proverbs 1:8-9 ESV)

iv. The result will be a more peaceful life for your child

"Whoever guards his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble." (Proverbs 21:23 GW)


The Bottom Line

Children need help in learning to appropriately deal with negative emotions. Negative emotions are usually strong emotions, and strength needs boundaries to control that strength.

Parents, thus is a wonderful opportunity to connect with your children by means of modeling and teaching. It can be a bumpy ride at times, but the end result - a child in-control of their emotions - will be worth it.

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