My Child Just Can’t Manage His Emotions!

What do I Do with My Child’s Emotions?

If you’re a parent or have children in your life in any capacity, you know how hard it can be for them manage their emotions. As the adults in their lives, we have the unique and important task of helping them understand what they are feeling and figure out what to do about it.

It’s generally accepted that there are eight primary built in emotions; anger, sadness, fear, joy, interest, surprise, disgust, and shame.  We can have secondary emotions in reaction to emotions, however. (Ex: Guilt for reacting in an angry way, anger after being embarrassed).

These secondary emotions aren’t hardwired into us, but are learned! This is where we as adults come in.

As Sanya Pelini from Parent Co. states,

Secondary emotions are always linked to these eight primary emotions and reflect our emotions reaction to specific feelings.  These emotions are learned from our experiences. 

For example, a child who has been punished because of a meltdown might feel anxious the next time she gets angry.  A child who has been ridiculed for expressing fear might feel shame the next time he gets scared.

In other words, how we react to our kids’ emotions has an impact on the development of their emotional intelligence.

Emotional invalidation prevents kids from learning how to manage their emotions. When we teach kids to identify their emotions, we give them a framework that helps explain how they feel, which make it easier for them to deal with those emotions in a socially appropriate way. 

These emotions vary depending on age. 

To read more about this from Sanya Pelini, Ph.D in education research click here.


Emotional Intelligence… it Starts Young!

John Gottman’s studies on emotional intelligence tell us that kids that are taught about emotions are better able to remove themselves from unpleasant situations and/or engage in activities to help them calm themselves.  Basically, when we teach kids about feelings and that all people have them, we help give them tools to get through life.  When we teach children that it’s ok to be sad, angry, hurt, or embarrassed and that they aren’t judged for feeling that way, we validate them. Only when we do this, can we teach them what to do with their feelings. Children that aren’t validated are known to act out.  In our daily lives, we aren’t in control of decisions that other people make or events that happen, but we are in control of how we react.

As Pelini states, Kids cannot appropriately express emotions if they are not taught about those emotions first. Although kids begin to be fully aware of their emotions and how to manage them from about age 10, emotional intelligence researchers suggest that they can be taught about emotions from as early as age 3. When we help put our kids’ emotions into words – “I can see you’re sad”, “I know you’re upset because you would have liked to continue watching your program” – we not only teach them to identify different emotions, we also help them put their feelings into words

Check Out These Great Tips from Sanya Pelini:

  1. Talk often, but for short periods

It’s more effective to talk about emotions often but for short periods than to talk infrequently over long periods.

  1. Picking the right moment matters

Don’t try to talk to your kid about emotions when he’s in the middle of a meltdown or when you’re tired or upset. The best time to talk to kids about emotions is when you’re both calm, relaxed and attentive.

  1. Relate discussions about emotions to your child

It’s good to talk to kids about emotions. It’s better to relate the emotions to your kid’s specific case. For example, if you’re reading a book about anger, you could ask her what would make her as angry as the character in the book. You could also ask her if she has ever felt the same as that character and what she did.


Don’t forget…. You have feelings too!

I hate to break it to you, but you’re human! As a parent or someone who regularly spends time with children, you have feelings too. It’s more important for children to see you recognize what you are experiencing and handle it in a constructive way rather than avoid the feelings and what’s going on.

They learn from watching you. There’s a way for you to express how you are feeling without going into details. Ex: “Mommy is really hurt about something that happened at work today,” but then Mommy makes some calls, talks about it, and moves forward.

Feelings are normal and everyone has them. When you normalize feelings, you are helping your child build his or her emotional intelligence.


If you feel you need help assisting your child with developing appropriate skills to manage his or her emotions, please call Champaign Counseling at 217-203-2008. Jolie Carsten and I (Katrina Shain) work with children and teens.

Sarah Olson and  Jolie Carsten are available for individual and couples counseling.

Photo Credits:

Jordan Whitt Ashton Bingham

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