Published on 17 August 2023

    How to help your child when they experience feelings larger than their emotional capacity.

    Managing one’s emotions can be tricky, even in the best of times.

    For children, in particular, they can feel overwhelmed trying to make sense of their feelings to navigate through the complexities of their emotions as they grow up. 

    This inability to handle strong emotions like anger, frustration, stress, and even joy, can manifest in different ways. You may see them display traits like frequent breakdowns and intense tantrums, being hyperactive in certain situations, and showing aggression.

    Such behaviours are usually indicative that the child is unable to regulate their emotions.

    “[Emotional regulation] is the ability to manage one’s emotions, thoughts and behaviours according to the demands of the situation,” explained Dr Kalyani Mulay, Senior Consultant, Division of Developmental and Behavioural Paediatrics, Department of Paediatrics, Khoo Teck Puat – National University Children's Medical Institute (KTP-NUCMI), National University Hospital (NUH).

    Being unable to manage intense and strong emotions can also affect a child’s academic skills, learning, interpersonal relationships with friends and family, and even participation in everyday activities.

    Validating their emotions

    It is important for parents to teach their child how to handle their feelings in a healthy manner, while also providing them the space to practise self-regulating their emotions.

    When the child is in a meltdown, it’s certainly not the right time to reason with them to clean up the mess they just made or insist they apologise for their behaviour. What parents can do at this point is to acknowledge the child’s feelings and help them ride through storm.

    “Rather than viewing the child as misbehaving, parents should try to understand their child’s emotional and regulation needs,” explained Ms Chiang Jing Jing, Senior Occupational Therapist at the Child Development Unit (CDU), KTP-NUCMI at NUH.

    “In doing so, they will become more sensitive and responsive to the child. And that helps to support the child’s self-regulation development.” 

    When parents stay compassionate, the child feels understood and they are more likely to move past the anger.

    There are several strategies parents can practise in helping their child when they feel emotionally overwhelmed. 

    Calm them down by speaking in a reassuring voice, while looking at them at their eye line. The way to get through a tantrum is to connect and empathise with your child and show that he is safe with you.

    Parents can also hug them firmly, rock them gently, or support them in silence. In addition, parents can provide a safe space – like a tent – for their child to recharge.

    Help the child relax by getting them to take deep breaths, counting to 10, or simply drinking water. 

    Helping children make sense of their big feelings

    Only when the child has calmed down, parents can re-connect and talk about their feelings with them. 

    “We want to help children learn and recognise their emotions by labelling them, for instance, ‘I can see that you feel angry because...’ This helps them to understand some of the complex and big emotions that they may be feeling,” explained Dr Kalyani. 

    Having discussions about emotions as a regular conversational topic with children would also allow them to be better acquainted with their feelings, and help them develop greater emotional awareness.

    Leading by example

    One of the fastest ways children learn is by modelling after the behaviours of adults.

    “It is better to show them how to manage their emotions rather than tell them. Hence, parents can model self-regulation by managing their own emotions in healthy and appropriate ways,” said Ms Chiang.

    Children pick up behaviours from watching what parents do. Say you’ve had a dreadful day at work, instead of shouting or hitting the child when they behave badly, parents can share with them how they feel and show them healthy coping methods such as taking deep breaths or going for a walk to calm down when they are upset.

    “If parents model unhealthy methods [of coping with their emotions] such as smoking, excessive alcohol usage or avoiding emotions, the child may learn to cope with their emotions in similarly unhealthy ways,” warned Dr Kalyani.

    Counteractive coping mechanisms

    Let’s be honest here. Sometimes, our patience does get pushed to its limit as a parent, and we might unknowingly act out in ways that could emotionally stunt the child. This can include dismissing their emotions, or criticising and punishing them for their feelings.

    This cripples a child’s ability to recognise and manage their emotions, and instead may encourage them to suppress their feelings.

    Conversely, constantly rescuing their child from emotional situations where they struggle to regulate their emotions can do more harm than good.  

    Think about this. If your child has a conflict with a peer, should you jump in to rescue him or her from the uneasy situation?

    It might be intuitive to do so but guiding them to navigate the situation themselves will help them learn to be problem solvers.

    It all starts with you

    Being a parent can be a tall order at times. To be an effective parent, however, one cannot ignore their own self-care 

    Take a break to relax and do things that you enjoy. This will keep you feeling refreshed, and you’d be in a better state of mind to manage your child’s emotions again.

    Be open to seeking help from your spouse or family members and friends to regulate your own emotions away from your child’s meltdowns.

    “Remember, it is okay to make mistakes and seek professional help when needed,” reminded Ms Chiang.

    “Every child develops at their own pace and there is no fixed age at which children would be able to control their emotions better,” she added.

    It’s not a race, it’s a marathon. Therefore, pace yourself and keep yourself in check to be the most effective parent to your child.

    In consultation with Dr Kalyani Mulay, Senior Consultant, Division of Developmental and Behavioural Paediatrics, Department of Paediatrics, KTP-NUCMI, NUH, and Ms Chiang Jing Jing, Senior Occupational Therapist at the Child Development Unit (CDU), KTP-NUCMI, NUH.

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