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“Scary” Emotions: Teaching Kids How To Engage With Three Big Feelings

It’s that time of year when we recognize the spooky, the scary, and the horrific. Even for adults, it’s generally understood that some of the most terrifying things we could ever encounter are our own emotions.

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The same goes for kids. The emotions they feel are raw and wild. Without some kind of direction, they can easily get lost in them.

Here is some guidance on how to help your child navigate three “scarier” emotions: anger, fear, and sadness.

Scary Feeling #1: Anger

We’ve already talked about how to manage a tantrum, but anger can be SUCH an overwhelming emotion to help your kids through that the high points are worth repeating.

  • As the parent, stay calm. THIS IS SO MUCH EASIER TO SAY THAN TO DO, but getting angry back at your child will probably make things worse.
  • Tell them what’s going to happen next. If the tantrum is over something you can fix (like being hungry or uncomfortable), then address the issue. If it’s not something you can compromise on, calmly explain to them what will happen next. 
  • Explain the feeling. Behavioral Therapist Jaime Gleicher puts it perfectly: A meltdown is the emotion that’s not understood. Kids need someone to explain how they are feeling because they can’t communicate it themselves. After your child has calmed down (because who wants to examine their emotions when they’re experiencing blazing hot anger?), talk to them about why they are mad and what’s happening in their mind and body when they get upset. 
  • Find solutions together. Kids need your help understanding what to do when they’re overwhelmed by anger. Try out some of these anger-reducing strategies to see if any of them work for your kid. 
    • Count to 10.
    • Breathe slowly and deeply.
    • Clench and unclench their fists.
    • Talk to someone they trust
    • Go to a private place to calm down

Scary Feeling #2: Fear

Fear can be intimidating as a parent. Not only is it literally scary for the child, but handling a little person’s fears (like going back to school) can feel like a big task. Here are some suggestions on how you can help your kiddo engage with their fears.

  • Don’t say, “There’s nothing to be scared of.” Just like with anger, validate your child’s feelings. Their fears aren’t silly or simple to them. Don’t minimize or dismiss them by saying they don’t need to be afraid. Instead, say things like, “Oh, I bet that is scary.”
  • Avoid avoidance. As tempting as it is to never expose your child to their fears again, it’s a bad idea. Avoiding the fear altogether does nothing to help them overcome it. That isn’t to say you should force your child into situations where they’re terrified. (For example, throwing a kid who’s afraid of water into a pool.) Gently and gradually work with them to overcome their fears. 
  • Work together. Find ways with your kid to talk about the feeling and expose them gently to what they are afraid of. Scared of dogs? Watch dogs walking by from inside your house before going outside and observing them from the front porch. Frightened of water? Start playing in a bucket or the bathtub before graduating to the shallow end of a pool. 
  • Sometimes fear isn’t a bad thing. Being scared of the dark or terrified of the doctor are examples of fears that inhibit daily life. However, as kids get older, some of their fears may be healthy. Not liking scary movies or having a healthy respect for heights are good examples. If their fear isn’t impeding their daily life or their overall mental health, it may simply be a boundary they don’t want to cross in order to feel safe.

Scary Feeling #3: Sadness

Dealing with another person’s sadness — the feeling of loss, sorrow, or being let down — can be a very heavy thing. If that person is your child, it can feel downright scary. If you’ve got a young one who is struggling with sadness, here are some things you can do.

  • Establish that crying is okay. Both boys and girls need to hear that it’s okay to cry when they’re sad. 
  • Listen to why they are sad. If your child has just lost their favorite toy, it’s easy to understand why they are upset. Other times, it may seem to be happening for no reason. Ask them why they feel sad. If they don’t know, work with them over the course of several days (or longer) to try and get to the root of their unhappiness. Remember that something like grief could take weeks or months to experience. Don’t rush them through it. Be there for them and make sure they know you love them. 
  • Normalize sadness by talking about it. Tell your kids when you are feeling sad to show them how to talk about it. As they get older — and the more often you discuss how you are feeling — they’ll be more likely to verbalize their emotions if they see you setting the example. 
  • Use images to your advantage. Sadness can be a really difficult emotion for kids to articulate. It’s often connected to several emotions happening simultaneously. That being said, saying “use your words” when your child is upset isn’t always very helpful. If your child can’t tell you what they’re feeling, create a feelings chart that uses emojis instead of words. That way, they can point to the expression that matches how they feel. 

Correct Behavior, Not Feelings

First thing’s first: Feeling emotions should not be punished. The last thing parents should do as it relates to their child’s emotions is make them feel bad about simply feeling angry, scared, sad, or any other emotion. Their feelings are trying to tell them something about themselves and the outside world. Ignoring them will set them up for a lot of harm. Acknowledge their feelings, and let them know feeling the emotion is totally fine. 

What isn’t fine is the behavior that comes after a feeling. How kids choose to react to their emotions is what you are trying to mold. That’s what can be hurtful (or even harmful) to others and themselves.

Second thing’s second: Keep the age of your child in mind when you’re working on their emotions. Remember that the younger your child is, the less they’re able to communicate to you what they’re feeling or implement some kind of long-term emotional strategy with you. How you may discipline your child and your expectations for how they behave should ALWAYS be considered through the lens of your child’s age. 

Emotions can be scary (even for adults). But with a parent like you, your child won’t have to experience them alone. Help them engage with these big emotions and know you’re setting them up for a strong emotional future when you do. 

Check out some of our additional information on social emotional development at our blog – littlesunshine.com/blog/.

What Is Social Emotional Learning?

Why It’s So Important to Teach Children Emotional Intelligence

Help Your Kids Practice Patience

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