upset child

When your child’s emotions run high – from conflict to relationship building

When your child’s emotions run high and they are losing control, it can be a challenging time for you. The good news however, is that you can use such times as an opportunity to both promote your child’s healthy social and emotional development and enhance your relationship with them.

By not being afraid of your child’s expressed emotions and by attending to your child’s distress, you are doubling the benefit. You help your child to both feel secure in their relationship with you and master the essentials for their other relationships.

Attending to your child’s distress involves a set of skills that you can learn and practice to become confident in your ability to manage a wide range of challenging situations involving your child. Below are some highlights and strategies for you to consider when managing your child’s distress.

Identify early signs of distress
What you can do: Get in early before the child had lost control over their behavior and are displaying stress responses, such as freezing, crying, or acting out with aggression. See the situation as the child starting losing control and needing your extra help to provide relief to their growing emotions.
The benefit:
– You teach your child that they can rely on you to get help before things go wrong.
– You teach your child that it is worth communicating distress to others and seek out help, as people can help before they get into trouble.

When/if emotions run high
What you can do: Don’t send child away and don’t leave yourself. Your child needs your help to make sense of their emotions and to regulate their behavior. When you stay by your child after your child did something that you had to correct, you are not ‘allowing bad behaviour’. Instead, you are assisting your child to calm down to a level where they are able to work out a plan to repair and resolve the conflict.
The benefit:
– You communicate to your child that while they are displaying intense emotions or doing something inappropriate, they are not intrinsically ‘bad’ as they are more than their behaviour.
– You communicate to your child that their relationship with you is more important than any conflict and that they are not rejected by you.
– You communicate to your child that there will always be people to help when things have gone wrong.

Co-regulate your child’s intense emotions:
A. Name the emotion for your child
What you can do: Turn fully to face your child, make an eye contact, and call your child’s name. At this initial stage, your voice and facial expression should somewhat match the child’s expressed feeling to convey understanding and empathy. Example: Parent imitates child by narrowing their eye lids while saying “I can see that you are angry, you are very angry right now!”
The benefit:
– You give your child the message that you can ‘see and feel’ their emotional experience, which brings you and your child closer together.
– You help your child to understand their emotions and themselves better.
– You assist your child with the development of their emotional language as you model ways to express how they feel.

B. Normalise emotion for your child
What you can do: With a calm and neutral facial expression and a calm tone of voice, normalize your child’s emotions. Examples of what you may want to say include “It is ok to feel upset sometimes, everyone gets upset sometimes”; “It is hard to know what to do sometimes”; “It is hard when you do not get what you really want”.
The benefit:
– You are communicating the message that all emotions are valid and acknowledged, but not all behaviours are permissible.
– You are giving the message that strong emotions can be tolerated, expressed, and handled.
– You help your child to make sense of their feelings.

C.Provide emotional support
What you can do: With an optimistic and warm tone of voice, verbalise your support. Examples of what you may want to say include “I am here with/for you”, “I’m going to help you”, and “we’re going to work it out together”. For older children, verbalise your confidence in them being able to handle the situation, such as in “I know you can do this”, and that they can always ask for help.
The benefit:
Although your child may not get what they want and be restricted in what they can do, they will feel understood and supported, and overall, emotionally closer to you.

D.Provide practical support and resolution once child is calm/er
What you can do:
Remind them to use their skills
Provide limits and boundaries
Problem solve
Talk about what has happened
Teach new skills
Plan to prevent conflict in the future
Help your child repair the situation. Some children may find it easier to repair behavior than to say sorry.
The benefit:
– If the situation is not repaired and resolved, it is most likely be repeated again in the future.
– You are helping your child be aware of their emotions and learn how to deal with them successfully.
– You are helping your child be less overwhelmed when a difficult situation occurs in the future.

Some of the common parent traps when it comes to managing children’s intense emotions include minimizing child’s emotions or ignoring them, reprimanding child for displaying negative emotions or punishing child, or conveying understanding of the emotions but failing to offer sufficient guidance and conflict resolution.

When children display difficult emotions and behaviors they ‘talk emotions’, whereas adults tend to ‘talk logic’ such as when responding by rationalizing with the child, providing limits, applying consequences, and problem solving. By staying by your child and attending to their intense emotions first, then also providing practical support and guidance to resolve the situation – you are enabling the two of you to emotionally connect, rather than disconnect, as you work through the situation together. You also assist your child with mastering the psychological ability to self-regulate as they grow older.

Irina Moroshko is a Clinical Psychologist with an interest in working with families to strengthen bonds and improve relationships as well as providing specialised assessments and therapy services. Irina speaks English, Russian and Hebrew and works at our Ormond practice Tuesday-Friday


  1. Yael Manor — 29 June 2016 — 8:18 pm

    Great Article!!! I loved the topic, the way you wrote about it and most of all the practical “what to do”s which are so helpful.

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge

  2. Hilah Lerer — 9 July 2016 — 3:29 am

    I loved it! Great article. Gives practical ideas on how to tackle situations I face on a daily basis. Thank you!