Every child is different. Every moment is different. There is no one step magical solution to helping you deal with an upset child. We all have different ways of dealing with emotions. None the less, I have found that the guidelines can provide a framework for interacting with children who are upset.
1. Calm yourself as much as possible. Whatever tricks work for you. Taking a few deep breaths, close your eyes for moment, feel your feet on the ground. A calm adult helps the child feel protected from others and from their own behavior. When a child is upset, they feel comforted when adults around them stay calm. According to John Bowlby, it is the parent's role to be the stronger, wiser, kinder person in the relationship. Staying calm in the face of a child's emotional turbulence allows you to fulfill the role of stronger, wiser, and kinder.
2. Acknowledge the emotional expression with calm compassion. This helps the child feel seen and understood. They learn that the are responded to when they are in distress and that they are accepted, even when they are expressing something difficult. It’s especially important if the strong emotion is coming out of a conflict you are having with the child (You had to take away a dangerous object, or get your child in the car seat etc). This can be difficult when the child is crying over something that seems ridiculous, but try your hardest!
Example*: “you seem so upset about leaving." “ It sounds like you have a lot of crying to get out.” “It seems like you have a lot of big feelings right now.”
3. Offer physical and emotional contact. Be with your child during the difficult emotions. Offer your lap or just sit next to the child. Reassure them that you are listening and compassionate. If they do not want physical contact, respect their request. Make your voice gentle and slow and get down on their level.
Example*: “I’m sorry you’re so sad, I’m here with you.” “You can sit in my lap while you cry.” “ I can hold you.” "I will stay here while you finish hitting the pillow."
4. Clarify the narrative that preceded the emotional reaction. This may require asking questions about what happen, if you do not know what happened. Avoid asking too many questions as this may also distract the child from their emotional experience. You don’t need to know all details to support them, just the big picture.
Example*: “You are really missing your mommy.” “You’re not ready to leave.”
This part may include summarizing your own behavior. “You really wanted the plate, and I took it away.” or "I said 'no' very loudly when you got close to the street". It may also include holding a boundary that caused the upset, children often cry when adults hold necessary boundaries (like not eating a lot of candy, going to bed, and getting in the car). Respecting their emotional response does not mean giving them what they want, it means allowing both of you to feel their response.
5. Offer a cooperative transition/guide behavior. Emotions come in waves; often there is cessation and still points in their expression. After the child has been able to express the emotions nonverbally, you can help them come back into their thinking minds and come up with a plan for reengagement. When this is done together the child learns that they play an active role in regulating their experience. This is similar to a distraction, because it helps the child organize their behavior to do something new; it is very different when it comes after the child’s emotional expression being validated and when the child participates in making choices.
Example*: “ That was really hard. You seem like your feeling a little better, are you ready to find something to do?” “Do you want me to help you find a new toy to play with?” “Sometimes when I feel sad, I like to….” "I know your angry about cleaning up, but we need to clean before we leave. You can take this block to put away and I'll do the other one."
Offering emotional support to children is a complex process that requires the adult to manage their own emotions. It is the adult’s responsibility to help the child feel their own emotions, to process and understand the chain of experiences that helped those emotions arise, to accept the child through difficulty, and to support the child in organizing their behavior in the environment they are in. This gives children the opportunity to learn ways of respecting and responding to emotional experience.
* The examples I gave were for toddler and preschool age children. The same principles apply with all ages, but the application is changed to fit the current developement of the child.
Bowlby, J. (1969/1982). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Siegel, D. & Hartzell, M. (2003). Parenting from the inside out: How a deeper self- understanding can help you raise children who thrive. Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher.
Follow me on Facebook: