Dealing with Kids' Strong Emotions

If your kid seems to have teen mood swings, we've got the right ways to react.
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You may not know how to respond the first time your child lets loose with an "I hate you!" or "Leave me alone!" since you probably didn't expect that kind of attitude until your kid reached double digits. So why is your nowhere-near-adolescent child reciting lines from the dictionary of teen angst?

Kids this age have trouble coming up with the right words to describe how they feel, so they may blurt out the first thing that comes to mind, misuse terms, or repeat phrases they've heard elsewhere, explains Cathy Mavrolas, Ph.D., a pediatric psychologist at La Rabida Children's Hospital, in Chicago. Unfortunately, that -- plus a growing sense of independence and the need to assert themselves and test limits -- means they may use troubling or hurtful language. This cheat sheet will help you handle some common phrases.

"I hate you!"

What it means: No, your kid doesn't really hate you. "What she's trying to say is, 'I'm upset,' 'I'm angry,' or 'I'm something,' " Dr. Mavrolas explains. That "something" may or may not have anything to do with you, but she directs her feelings at you because you're a safe target.

What to do: Instead of reacting emotionally, help her find different words to express what she's thinking so she doesn't use "I hate you" as a default, suggests Kurt Klinepeter, M.D., associate professor of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. After allowing her time to calm down, explain that "hate" is a word that hurts people's feelings.

"That's not fair!"

What it means: Your child feels cheated in some way. Because kids this age want everything to be equal they tend to think in terms of "fair" and "not fair," says Dr. Mavrolas. So if you don't give your son the number of cookies he feels he deserves or a friend is allowed to play a game that's off-limits to him, he'll think he's getting poor treatment.

What to do: Resist the urge to say, "Life's not fair." Dr. Mavrolas suggests acknowledging what your child said but then sticking to your guns. For instance, you could say, "I understand you feel it isn't fair, but you can't have any more cookies because we don't want to spoil your appetite before dinner." Or, "It may not seem fair that Aaron gets to play that game, but we have different rules in this family."

"Nobody likes me."

What it means: She was probably excluded from an activity or is having a problem with one of her friends. Fitting in is very important to school-age kids, so if your daughter feels left out she may think the whole world is against her, says Nancy S. Buck, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist and author of How to Be a Great Parent.

What to do: Ask her if something happened at school today that made her sad. When she spills, support her and sympathize with her feelings. "Telling her, 'It must be upsetting that Molly didn't play with you today' goes a long way," says Dr. Buck. There's no need to set up a playdate or speak with Molly's parents; it's better to give your child the chance to work the problem out for herself. However, if she struggles to make friends or frequently says no one likes her, you may want to talk to the teacher to get a better feel of the situation, and also get her involved in an activity where she'll meet kids who share similar interests.

"Leave me alone!"

What it means: It's true: Your son may not want you hovering over him as he tries to complete a puzzle, or he may feel you're interrupting his playtime to bug him about cleaning his room. But that doesn't mean he doesnt love you.

What to do: There's nothing wrong with a child wanting more space; you just need to teach more respectful ways to ask for it, says Dr. Mavrolas. Tell him it's not okay to say, "Leave me alone" or "Go away," but it's fine for him to say, "I need some alone time" or "May I have ten more minutes to play before I do my chores?" When your child asks for time or privacy in a kinder way, try to honor the request whenever possible.

"I hate myself."

What it means: This type of comment usually isn't a sign of low self-esteem; it simply means your child is upset with herself for some reason, Dr. Buck says. She could feel down in the dumps because a classmate can do something she hasn't mastered yet or because she accidentally broke a favorite toy.

What to do: Don't make a big deal about it if it doesn't happen frequently. Instead of getting caught up in the language, you could simply say: "You sound really frustrated. Did something happen today?" No response? Give her some space. If she spills, explain that we all feel disappointed in ourselves at times. Or, talk about how different people are better at different things (and ask her to think of some things she does well). Then help her change "I hate myself" into "I'm mad at myself because ..." Teaching her to talk through her frustrations will leave her better equipped to handle the next obstacle in her path.

Originally published in the April 2013 issue of Parents magazine.

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