Helping Your Preschooler Handle Emotions and Avoid Outbursts

Prevent over-the-top outbursts by helping your child learn better ways to handle stressful situations.

Preschoolers may look older than toddlers, but despite their expanding vocabulary and growing independence, they can still feel overwhelmed by strong emotions like anger, sadness, fear, and anxiety. "Their brain is growing at a rapid rate, and their emotions don't always keep pace," says Katie Hurley, a child psychotherapist and author of The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World.

Teaching kids to regulate their emotions can help them experience smoother days, but there are other benefits to consider. Researchers at Arizona State University found that kids who handle challenging emotions are more resilient and better at paying attention. And a study from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro linked kids' emotional regulation with future academic success, including higher math and reading scores.

Here's how to help your preschooler handle emotions and avoid outbursts.

Help Your Child Label Their Feelings

Kids experience their emotions physically, like a knot in the tummy, a clenched fist, or uncontrollable tears, but they don't always know what those feelings mean. "When your child is experiencing an outsize emotion, label it for him," says Lauren Knickerbocker, Ph.D., clinical assistant professor at NYU Langone's Child Study Center. Try saying, "You're sad that Grandma has to leave, aren't you?" or "Oh, you're frustrated that your Lego tower fell down." Naming emotions, Dr. Knickerbocker explains, makes them less scary and can help kids find a more appropriate response.

Tips for teaching kids to label their feelings

Everyday activities can be used in clever ways to help your child learn how to recognize and label their feelings. Here are a few ways to get started.

  • Read age-appropriate books together that show kids a wide swath of emotions they may experience.
  • Work together as a family to build an emotional vocabulary that includes pleasant and unpleasant emotions.
  • Talk about body language and how that can help you spot an emotion like a frown when your glum or bouncing in your seat when you're excited.
  • Role play as a family on how to get through the emotions your child struggles with the most.

Teach By Example

Your response to negative emotions sends a strong message to your kid. "We teach children through our own behavior how to handle fear, anger, and stress," says Sarah C. Bauer, M.D., a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago. Your kid is watching you for social cues, and your reaction to stress—either screaming at the T-ball coach or calmly voicing your opinion—can be a blueprint for their reactions in the future.

Ask yourself whether your responses are the ones you'd like to see in your child and act accordingly. If you do slip up, use the experience to offer a lesson in emotional management. If someone cuts you off in traffic and you yell at them, you can say, "Oops—I got a little angry at that other driver. I think I will take some deep breaths to help the anger go away." Let your child know it's okay to feel bad by explaining, "I'm sad when Grandma leaves too," or "I felt angry and frustrated last week, just like you, when I couldn't fix that drippy faucet."

Did You Know?

Studies show that when parents model compassion and empathy to their children, they can break generational cycles of aggressive behavior and help set the groundwork for their children to grow into emotionally intelligent adults.

Use Books and Apps

Read children's books that focus on managing emotions. "Taking a step back and seeing things through the eyes of a character on the page allows children to work through their own feelings at a safe distance," says Hurley. She recommends these great titles:

In terms of apps, Common Sense Media suggests the following apps for kids to learn how to calm down and ground themselves through simple guided meditation.

Cater to Your Child

When it comes to handling emotions, every preschooler is different. Some children will find comfort in a cuddle, while others may need to run around outside. Your child's antidote for frustration may look different from the way they choose to handle feeling nervous.

Initially, you can make suggestions, says Dr. Knickerbocker. Try saying, "When I feel bad, hugging the puppy makes me feel better. Want to try it?" or "Blowing bubbles outside might help make those angry feelings go away." Eventually, you should encourage your child to come up with their own solutions, but wait until the emotional storm has passed to have that type of conversation. Your child isn't likely to absorb a lesson on emotional control when they're in the middle of a meltdown.

Once your kid is calm again, says Dr. Knickerbocker, you can ask them questions about what would have made them feel better or what they can do the next time they get angry. At some point, those coping strategies will become a built-in part of how your child responds in moments of emotional upheaval. Over time your child's strategies may change. What won't is their ability to handle their emotions, whether they're hugging their lovey at 4 or practicing yoga at 14.

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