For many new parents, helping their child process emotions can be a tricky task. It’s more than simply categorising feelings as “good”, such as happiness and contentment, or “bad”, such as sadness or anger.
Rather, it’s about allowing your young ones to feel what they feel – to understand why they have these reactions, and what they mean.
Feelings come and go; to process them, we have to honour them as signals to our inner world and ride them out instead of trying to hold them back. Alas, many parents try to subdue their children’s “bad” feelings, which can end up being frustrating – in and of itself a negative emotion.
If this struggle sounds familiar to you, here are five ways to help your child ride the wave of emotions the next time they hit.
1. Normalise feelings
For children to learn to manage uncomfortable feelings, they need to understand that all emotions are OK, even messy ones like rage or sadness.
This isn’t a message that can be delivered as a one-off; they need to see their parents modelling healthy ways of thinking and talking about feelings.
This might sound like: “I’m feeling nervous about the meeting I have at work”, or “I need to step away for a minute because I’m feeling so angry”.
When children see us experiencing feelings and working through them, they learn that they, too, can cope with even the trickiest emotions.
2. Don’t take it personally
Parents often view it as a personal affront when their child cries or yells. There you are, trying your best to be a loving mum or dad, only to be greeted with big feelings and loud reactions.
It’s natural for children to express themselves; our job is to empathise and validate their emotions while establishing the necessary boundaries. Their crying or yelling does not say anything about our parenting.
It’s also important to know that children communicate through their behaviour. A mantra such as “my child is not giving me a hard time, my child is HAVING a hard time” can help you access patience and compassion instead of taking offence.
3. Create a safe space
One of the questions a child may ask, often indirectly, is: “Am I safe?” Feeling safe is what helps them tolerate distressing emotions and learn to manage them.
Parents can create that sense of safety by focusing on grounding themselves instead of joining in their chaos. This means prioritising one’s own emotional regulation before responding to their tears or anger.
Check in with yourself and ask what you need to remain calm. It could be stepping away, drinking some water, or taking a few breaths. Find the coping mechanism that allows your body to know what to do when your child’s emotions threaten to overwhelm.
4. Interpret the message
Again, children communicate much more through their actions than words. If they’re displaying difficult behaviour such as hitting or screaming, they’re likely experiencing difficult feelings on the inside.
Verbalising what’s happening for them can help your child gain clarity and eventually learn to interpret their own emotions. For example: “I understand you’re disappointed we couldn’t go for ice cream today.”
In those moments when you’re truly baffled by your child’s behaviour, stay clear of assumptions. Instead, acknowledge them by saying: “Something about this is upsetting you” or “I believe you”, before potentially moving to on to this final point:
5. Let feelings be
No parent wants to see their children suffer. This often leads mums and dads to try to get their child to feel better as quickly as possible: “Don’t worry, it’s not that bad”, or “there’s nothing to be upset about”.
In order to grow, however, children must be allowed to struggle every now and then. Does this mean you have to stand back and ignore their pain? Not at all.
Instead, create a space for their feelings to exist without judgement. No distractions, no rushing them into an activity: just let their feelings be, and trust your young one to navigate them with your supportive presence.
By helping your children ride their wave of emotions, they can learn these will pass and crash harmlessly upon the shore – but only if you allow them to.
This article was written by Justina Chen for makchic, a Malaysian-based online site for chic, curious, and spirited parents. makchic has been providing trustworthy and authentic family-related content since 2013. For diverse stories of parenthood that inform, support and uplift all families, visit makchic.com and follow them on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter (X).