How do we help our children navigate difficult emotions?

It’s only natural as a parent to want to protect your child from experiencing tough emotions. Our society tells us that certain emotions are “bad”, including anger, sadness, anxiety or shame, and as a result we often miss the message in these emotions. Every emotion has a purpose, and whilst some are unpleasant to experience, they are neither good or bad, right or wrong. There is a difference between having a feeling and how we act on it.

Raising Emotionally Intelligent Children

Research suggests that children with high emotional intelligence have fewer behavioural problems, mental health issues, and have healthier relationships and academic success. In order to raise emotionally intelligent children (i.e kids who are able to understand, evaluate and regulate emotions) as parents we must first accept our child’s feelings without judging them. They simply are what they are. What we do with those feelings, though, is extremely important, and that is a large part of emotional intelligence- learning to respond appropriately without reacting impulsively. It’s not about just understanding and accepting feelings but also teaching children appropriate actions around those feelings.

So rather than jumping to actions to help prevent our child experiencing certain emotions (e.g. avoidance), or responding to emotions such as anger with punishment, here are some more helpful approaches.

Step 1: Understand and validate (hearing and respect) emotions

As parents, we need to teach our children that it’s not only OK to feel deeply but important to do so. We want to teach them how to listen to their feelings, their messages, and respond appropriately. While we may not always agree that our child’s feeling reflects the facts or severity of the situation, if we miss this step, the child feels misunderstood and we send a message that their feelings are not acceptable. They may feel frustrated that they haven’t been heard or that there is something wrong with them for feeling that way. The goal is not to fix your child’s feelings or tell them how to feel, but rather to communicate that you understand and accept them. Once they feel heard, then you can help soothe them. However, we usually want to jump right in and fix the problem or soothe them straight way. Here’s an example of showing understanding and validation:

Here’s an example of punishing without accepting the child’s feelings:

Parent: Why did you hit your sister?

Madison: She snatched my doll

Parent: It’s just a doll. No need to get angry! You have to learn to share your things.


Here’s another example where the parent invalidates the child’s feelings:

Parent: why are you crying?

Nathan: Ben wouldn’t play with me.

Parent: Don’t worry about it, just play with somebody else!


Here’s an example where the parent validates and shows understanding:

Cameron is angry because his mother asked him to have a bath and he wants to keep playing with Lego “No, I don’t want to have a bath”

Mum: “I can see you’re upset about that. It’s hard when you want to keep playing and I’ve asked you to finish up and have a bath. I’d be annoyed too if I was in the middle of something and I had to pack it away”.

Understanding and validating emotions is only half of the equation. We must distinguish between accepting feelings and accepting actions. If we do not teach our children how to respond appropriately to high emotions or to others’ behaviours, the result is likely oppositional, disrespectful, unempathic or reactive behaviour. And so we bring in Step 2.

Step 2: Limit child’s responses

Teach children there’s a difference between having a feeling and how we act on that feeling. Once we have demonstrated acceptance, this paves the way for change for teaching the child how to stay connected during emotional storms or how to respond to others in emotional distress. Otherwise the result is an emotionally reactive child who cannot regulate his or her emotions. A common practice in conventional child discipline is to not accept the child’s feelings or actions, but to attempt, instead, to correct both.

Here’s an example where the child is disciplined both for his feelings and his actions:

Parent: There’s no need to get angry just because you didn’t get what you want, now go to your room for time out.

Here’s the other side where the parent accepts both the feeling and the behaviour, which generally results in a poor outcome (e.g. spoiled behaviour)

Parent: Oh so he took your truck did he? I’d be really angry too. Go and take it back off him and don’t play with him again.

When we accept feelings and limit behaviours, we teach children that it is a normal human response to feel that way but that they can choose how to act on their emotions.

Here’s an example of accepting feelings which allows us to move towards soothing and/or limiting behaviours:

Parent: Why did you throw the toy at Grace?

Child: She won’t play the game I want to play!

Parent: I can see you’re upset. I’d be annoyed too if I wanted to play something and the other person didn’t. It’s OK to be angry, but it’s not OK to hurt Grace. Come and sit with me until you’re calm.

Child: But I don’t want to. I want Grace to play with me!

Parent: I want you to sit with me now. You will get to ask Grace to play again when you settle down. Let’s take some breaths (or hug, or do star jumps or other activity to help child regulate their emotions)

Praise the child for regulating their emotions (e.g. great job there at calming down).  The discipline comes after the storm passes.

Parent: You did great at calming down! Look at your sister’s face. How do you think she’s feeling? How do you think you would feel if she threw a toy at you? (this encourages empathy). How can you make her feel better ?

Child: I don’t know.

Parent: I feel better when someone says they are sorry. Do you think that would help Grace? (Don’t force an apology, but teach it as a way of repairing things. If we focus on encouraging empathy for others, the child is more likely to apologise willingly). Then you may ask her if she would like to play (then if Grace doesn’t want to play, encourage empathic responding, asking if there are times when the child doesn’t fee like playing and how it feels to be forced)

In the example above you see that the parent is understanding and validating but also firm and decisive. Acceptance paves the way for showing children how to manage their emotions themselves rather than acting impulsively. Learning to “toggle” with their emotions helps children tolerate distress and this may flow into adulthood positively. In summary, accept feelings and limit behaviours.

As well as helping our children develop emotional intelligence, it is important to continue growing and reflecting on our own emotional intelligence. Looking at how we deal with difficult emotions such as anger, shame, guilt, fear or sadness helps us see if we need to change some of our own attitudes or behaviours, which will benefit our children enormously.

By Dr Karen Hancock, Registered Psychologist.

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