Calming down from strong emotions: why children need help
From around two years old, children start developing many new emotions. These include strong emotions like frustration, anger, embarrassment, guilt, shame and excitement. These strong emotions can sometimes be overwhelming for children.
Children often need help to calm down from these strong emotions because they:
- are still developing all their skills, including skills for managing strong emotions
- don’t always have words to talk about strong emotions, especially in the toddler and preschooler years
- might react more strongly to things because of their temperaments
- can find it hard to calm down if they’re tired or hungry, in busy places like shopping centres, or at exciting events like parties.
Learning to calm down is an important part of learning to understand and manage emotions for children.
Helping children calm down: five steps
Here are five steps to help your child calm down from a strong emotion:
- Notice and identify the emotion.
- Name and connect the emotion.
- Pause and say nothing.
- Support your child while they calm down.
- Address the issue.
1. Notice and identify the emotion
If your child looks like they need help to calm down, stop. Pay attention to what your child’s behaviour is telling you about their feelings before you do or say anything else. You can do this by:
- looking closely at your child
- watching their body language
- listening to what your child is saying.
For example, if you ask your child to turn off the TV and have a shower, your child might ignore you, or roll around on the floor and complain loudly. This gives you a clue that your child is feeling angry.
It can take practice to learn to identify your child’s emotions.
2. Name and connect the emotion
The second step is to label the emotion and connect it with the event. This teaches your child to understand:
- what they’re feeling and why
- how their body reacts to this feeling
- what words go with the feeling.
It also shows your child that you understand how they feel and that this emotion is OK, even if their behaviour isn’t OK.
For example, if your child is rolling around on the floor and complaining loudly about turning off the TV, you could say, ‘I can see that you’re feeling angry about turning off the TV’.
3. Pause and say nothing
Pausing and saying nothing for a few seconds gives your child time to take in what you’ve just said. It’s hard not to jump in and start talking. You might find it helps to count slowly to five in your head while you wait.
This pause might be enough for your child to calm down and move on to something else. Or they might solve the problem for themselves. For example, ‘Could I watch more TV after I’ve had my shower?’
4. Support your child while they calm down
If your child is very upset, they might take more time to get their emotions under control. For example, they might keep shouting or acting out physically.
Here are some things to try if your child needs longer to calm down:
- Make sure that they’re safe and you’re safe.
- Stay calm and close to your child. This shows that you understand and can handle whatever their emotions are. It also helps them understand that emotions don’t have to be overwhelming.
- Go back to step 1 – for example, ‘I can see you’re really furious about this’.
- Get someone to help you if you need it – for example, your partner if you have one.
- Wait for the strong emotion to pass. Be patient. It can be very hard for young children to manage strong feelings.
It’s tempting to say things like ‘Use your words’ or ‘Try taking some deep breaths’. But your child might not be able to respond to these suggestions until their emotions have passed. It’s often best just to wait.
It’s important to let your child know that it’s OK to feel strong emotions. When your child is calm, you might need to help your child understand the difference between the emotion and the behaviour. For example, ‘It’s OK to feel frustrated and disappointed. But it wasn’t OK to yell at me and kick the wall’.
5. Address the behaviour or solve the problem
Your child needs to calm down before you can help them solve a problem or change a behaviour you don’t like. What you do after your child has calmed down will depend on the situation. For example, you might need to:
- suggest other ways to react to strong emotions – for example, ‘If you feel excited, clap your hands and jump up and down on the spot’ or ‘If you feel angry, go into your room and squeeze your pillow hard. Come back when you’re calm’
- reassure or comfort your child – for example, ‘That was a scary thing that happened’ or ‘I’m sorry to see you so sad. Let’s have a hug’
- suggest some solutions for the problem – for example, ‘You could ask for your toy back’
- set some limits – for example, ‘I know you were angry, but hitting is never OK. You’ll have to miss the party tomorrow’.
Autistic children who show aggressive behaviour and children with ADHD often need extra support to cope with strong feelings and control their impulses. Your child’s therapist can give you ideas for strategies that might help.
Calming down: getting help
If you think your child needs more help dealing with their feelings, start by talking to the GP. The GP can help you find support for your child, which might include seeing a counsellor or psychologist. A school counsellor might also be able to help.
These professionals can also recommend parenting programs that can help you learn more about helping with children’s emotions.
You’re best able to help your child with their emotions when you’re calm yourself. Staying calm also gives you the chance to be a positive role model for managing emotions. Looking after yourself, especially your physical and emotional wellbeing, can help you stay calm around strong emotions.