The Breakdown on Big Feelings

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Interview with Dr. Laura Markham by Laurel Moglen

When it comes to helping children, ages 3-6, express their feelings, what is the most important thing for parents to do?

Empathize. (“You’re so frustrated your tower fell after you worked so hard on it!”, “That dog’s bark is loud; it scared you.”) When we empathize with our child, he learns:

  • What he is feeling is normal and acceptable (even if some actions he wants to take may not be acceptable.)
  • His parents understand his feelings, are not scared by them, and can help him manage them.
  • His feeling has a name. He can recognize this feeling in the future and use words to “tame” it.

What if it seems impossible for parents to understand what their child is feeling? Then what can parents do?

Say what you see and reassure the child that she is not alone with her feelings. “You are crying now…You seem so upset…It’s ok to cry, Sweetie…Everyone needs to cry sometimes…I will stay with you…I am right here.”

Could you list specific tips to help children express themselves for a 3, 4, 5, and 6 year old?

2 and 3 yr old – Empathize and give words for feelings. Give your child a safe place to express feelings when she’s upset — your arms! Never send your child away (including to her room) when she’s upset, because that gives her the message that she’s alone with her big scary feelings — just when she needs you most. Help her become comfortable expressing her feelings by crying and/or raging in your arms or near you (“I won’t hold you because you don’t seem to want me to right now, but I am right here. I won’t leave you alone with these big feelings. I am right here when you need a hug.”) Are you teaching him to tantrum? No, you are teaching him that he can recognize and express feelings, rather than “stuff” them. It’s the repressed feelings that get us in trouble, as when a three year-old socks his baby brother. If he learns that these chaotic feelings can be accepted and safely expressed, he will gradually develop the frontal lobe capacity and the neural pathways to calm his “big” feelings without the tantrum. And you’ll find that your understanding and empathy extinguish most tantrums before they even begin, since they salve his frustration.

4yr old – 4 year olds are famous for minor bullying: “You can’t come to my birthday party if you don’t play this game my way.” That’s because they are experimenting with power. Help them to reflect on their actions, and refrain from punishments, which teach them to lord power over others. Instead of timeouts, use natural consequences and set limits as necessary, offering empathy when he doesn’t like them. “We have to leave church now because you hit the other boy. I’m sorry you’re mad and sad, but we can’t stay when you hit.”

Does he get a timeout when he gets home? No. That won’t help. Instead you give him words for his feelings and teach him how he might handle them next time. You ask him what happened. As he describes it, you give him words for the feelings involved: “You were mad because the other kids didn’t want to play the game your way. That was pretty frustrating. It’s ok to get mad, all people get mad sometimes. But we NEVER hit. What else can you do when you get really mad?” Go through all the options. Let him suggest the “bad choices” like hitting other kids, and ask him “Would that be a good choice? Nah.” (Smiling is allowed.) Make it clear that while any feeling he has is ok, he chooses his own response to those feelings and he is responsible for his choices. Explain that he needs to acknowledge his angry feelings and choose to do something constructive with them.

5 yr old – If your five year old is still having “tantrums” or outbursts — not uncommon — help him brainstorm safe ways to express his frustration. Maybe he can carry a squeezy ball in his pocket to fill up with his mad feelings. Maybe he can go off by himself and take ten deep “calming” breaths when he’s frustrated (breathe in deeply through the nose, hold it a moment, and let it out very slowly through a small hole in your lips). Maybe he can turn around away from other people and hit the empty air. Maybe he can do push-ups. The trick with all of these things is to teach him while he’s feeling good, then remind him when he’s upset, so be sure to share them with his teachers. You’ll be amazed when you see him try one of these techniques when he’s under stress.

6 yr old – Listen! Six year-olds should be able to use words when they’re upset. If they “act out” with bad behavior instead of expressing themselves verbally to you, it probably means they don’t feel safe expressing their feelings, or don’t feel listened to. Spend a daily minimum of ten minutes, unstructured, alone with each child, listening to them talk about their day. Resist the urge to jump in and solve problems. Six year-olds need parents to listen and help them reflect, rather than to solve their problems. Simply give them your undivided attention and reflect what they say. “Hmm…So you got pretty mad, huh?…Sounds like you’re considering giving him a piece of your mind…But you think that might make things worse?…You’re wondering if it might be better to…” Before you know it, your kid gives you a quick hug and dashes out the door. With lots of confidence in his ability to sort out his own life. What an inspired parent! And what a lucky kid.

Laura Markham, Ph.D., is the author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting. She earned her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Columbia University and has worked as a parenting coach with countless parents across the English-speaking world, both in person and via phone. You can find Dr. Laura online at, the website of Aha! Moments for parents of kids from birth through the teen years, where she offers a free daily inspiration email to parents.

Posted in: Communication, Behavioral Issues, Expert Advice, Discipline