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Help along your child's emotional development—and defuse a meltdown—with these expert tips on helping kids express their feelings when they're upset.

By Becky Kennedy, Ph.D.
December 02, 2020
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Naming and validating your child’s upset feelings is a good parenting tactic, but it doesn’t work on every kid. If your little one often shuts down or protests when you ask what’s wrong, try these alternative strategies, which work best for kids ages 5 and up, from clinical psychologist (and mom of three).

Stay close and quiet.

For kids with perfectionist tendencies or an independent spirit, saying, “You’re so upset” and “I see you’re mad; that’s okay” during a tantrum may actually intensify negative feelings and spur shame. Instead, be present and stay calm to validate and connect with your child. You can start by taking deep breaths and repeating a silent mantra, like “Nothing is wrong with me. Nothing is wrong with my child. I can cope with this.” As you talk to your child during a meltdown, stick with feelings-free phrases. Try: “I’m right here with you.” When you focus on your own regulation and being present for your child, they’ll learn that their feelings aren’t so scary.

Develop a metaphor for big emotions.

This will provide a way to communicate with your child without making the conversation directly about them. In a quiet moment, you might say: “Do you ever think feelings work like an elevator? Imagine there’s one in the lobby. It moves up to floor two, then four, and then it has to go to the roof quickly before it can slowly go back down. Some people’s bodies work like that.” Don’t be discouraged if your child says nothing in return. Move on and trust they’ve registered your effort to understand and relate.

Turn it into a game.

To help your child tune into their own emotions, try the Rating Game. After your kid has calmed down, say, “I’m going to ask about something that happened. If it feels right, give me a thumbs-up. If it’s mixed, give me a thumb to the side. If it’s all wrong, thumbs-down.” Start with an interpretation that will get a laugh and a thumbs-down. (“When we were playing soccer, you got upset because aliens came and stole our ball!”) After a laugh, say: “Or because you wanted to score a goal and got frustrated when you didn’t.” When your child gives you a thumbs-up, don’t explore further. You can validate with, “I get that.” Then ask, “Do you want me to keep going? Give me a thumb movement to let me know.”

If your child has large outbursts and meltdowns that overwhelm you, or if you feel you and your child are locked into an unproductive dynamic around intense emotional moments, Dr. Kennedy suggests seeking professional advice.

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