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Little children, big feelings

Thursday, September 13, 2018

It is essential to help children cope with their overwhelming emotions in childhood, in order to prepare them for adulthood, says Anjali Kalani

Do you remember when you could easily soothe your fussy baby by making soft shushing sounds or humming a comforting tune?  I do!  It was so much easier back then. Fast forward a few years later and it takes a lot more effort to put that priceless smile back on their faces when they are distressed, anxious, angry or frustrated.

It is essential to help children cope with their overwhelming feelings in childhood in order to prepare them to be successful adults who can handle life's myriad ups and downs. So how can we teach our little people to navigate through their big feelings?

Listening and verbalising feelings

Look into your son or daughter's eyes and really listen as you would listen to a friend. And then give their feelings a name—even the negative, hurtful feelings aimed at you or the people you love. "You feel distressed because your friend called you a baby." Or, "You feel angry because I didn't buy you the toy you wanted, and you think I am mean." According to psychiatrist Paul C. Holinger verbalising children's feelings "leads to tension-regulation, self-soothing, self-regulation." Often, that is literally all it takes for children to calm down because they feel validated. It also causes them to look inward rather than outward for answers. Denying or dismissing feelings only results in more tears, anger and frustration.

Teach children how to handle anger

Children need to know that anger is a normal emotion that we all feel. But you should also lay emphasis on the fact that name calling and physically hurting someone is unacceptable. Younger children resort to expressing themselves physically because they lack the verbal skills to solve their problems. Arm children with the language they need to express themselves.

Writing or drawing feelings helps some children work through their anger, while others benefit from punching a pillow or another object to let off steam. My daughter once drew her friend as a fish and then adorned the mouth of the fish with a moustache. She laughed through her tears after looking at her work and her anger was soon forgotten.

Meditation and mindfulness exercises are also healthy ways to deal with anger because, again, they teach children to introspect. We regularly use the app Calm, which is geared at both adults and children. It features guided meditations, breathing techniques and sleep stories.


There's something uplifting about being out in nature and breathing in fresh air that helps dissipate negative emotions. Go for a walk, a bicycle or scooter ride, or play at the park when children are having a bad day. Physical activity releases feel-good chemicals that alters moods almost instantly.

Model calmness

Finally, there's nothing more important than handling our own emotions gracefully when life gets stressful. Our children observe us all the time and model our behaviour. Refrain from yelling and using bad language in front of the children, no matter what the provocation. Do whatever it takes to acquire some calm before responding—count up to a 100 or just distance yourself temporarily from the situation and breathe instead of reacting.           

As parents, it is hard to watch our children go through tempestuous emotions. But with a few tools in our tool box we can teach children how to grapple with their overwhelming feelings. Listening, acknowledging and verbalising feelings helps children self-soothe and self-reflect. We can also help children manage angry feelings by expressing themselves through art or writing. Punching a pillow, meditation and exercise also provide relief. But, perhaps, the most essential of all is regulating our own emotions because children model their behaviour after us.

Anjali Kalani is a mother of two independent, precocious children and an AMS and AMI certified Montessori guide who teaches children aged three to six in Houston, Texas.

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