How to Help Little Kids with Big Feelings

By Allison Wedell Schumacher

How to Help Little Kids with Big FeelingsNot too long ago, a well-meaning acquaintance asked, “How are you?”

Here’s what I thought: “Well, if you really want to know, my car is misbehaving and I’m worried about how much I’ll have to spend to fix it, I’m frustrated about an interaction I had with a friend that could have gone better, and I’m anxious about whether my daughter will like summer camp.”

Here’s what I said: “I’m fine.”

This is not the first time I have distilled a raft of intense emotions into two (perhaps less-than-truthful) words, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. I keep doing it because (a) if I name a feeling, that means I have to acknowledge I’m feeling that way, and sometimes I’m just not up to the task, and (b) intense emotions can be a little scary for everyone involved.

So if big feelings are difficult for me—a big person—to handle, just imagine how difficult they are for small people. For one thing, kids’ brains aren’t fully developed, so although they can feel emotions just as intensely as adults can, they are not as equipped to handle them. These big emotions can take over and be all-consuming. If you’ve ever seen a toddler throw a full-on temper tantrum, you know this to be true.

Part of our job as big people is to help our tiny humans navigate their intense emotions when they come along. Here are a few tips:

Get to know the lizard brain.
The part of the human brain responsible for emotions is called the amygdala, but in my family, we call it the lizard brain. That’s because it’s responsible for survival instincts. It doesn’t think rationally the way other parts of the brain do, and when your lizard brain is going full tilt (“I’m hungry!” or “I’m terrified!”), the rest of your brain—the calm, analytical parts—kind of comes unplugged.

When people are trapped in their lizard brains, you can’t reason with them. It would be like telling an angry T. rex to stop crying and just calm down. Not only would this be completely ineffective, it would be a good way to lose a limb. So when you get to know what your child looks and acts like when she’s in her lizard brain, you’ll know what steps to take to get her out of it.

Get out of the lizard brain.
So your kid is freaking out. His amygdala is lit up like the sky on the Fourth of July. And you’re probably in the middle of, say, the grocery store. Great. What now?

Now we do something really simple, like taking deep, slow breaths, counting, or naming all the colors we can think of. This starts to disengage the lizard brain by slowing your heart rate and breathing. You’ll find these techniques to be more effective if you practice them with your child when he is calm and do them together when he is upset (that is, don’t just tell your child to breathe; breathe with him).

Engage the thinking brain.
Now that the T. rex is no longer roaring, it’s time to get those analytical brain cells moving. You can start by asking your child what emotion she’s feeling. Again, this is something to practice before kids feel intense emotions. Find books that have illustrations of children’s faces portraying certain emotions (Cheri Meiners’s I Feel or the Everyday Feelings series are good places to start). Talk about how your body feels when you’re scared (heart pounding, breathing fast) as opposed to sad (lump in your throat, heavy feeling in the pit of your stomach) so your child can start to identify these intense feelings in herself and others. Kids will discover that there’s something about naming a feeling that helps them gain power and control over it.

Once your child names her feeling, be sure to acknowledge and affirm: “Yes, I can see you’re feeling frustrated. Can you tell me why?” Analyzing her emotions enough to verbalize them will help your child reattach her thinking brain.

Don’t get sucked in.
Believe me, I get it: When you’re tired after a long day, you have a cartful of groceries and dinner yet to cook, your kid is screaming on the floor of the deli section because you wouldn’t buy him that Lunchable, and people are starting to stare, well . . . part of you kind of wants to join him, right? It’s. Just. Not. Fair.

But trust me, you need to resist the temptation to lose your cool. You’ve got your own lizard brain; take a moment to tell your internal T. rex to chill out. For one thing, kids look to us for cues on how to behave in every situation, from washing our hands after using the bathroom to dealing with the disappointment of not getting our junk food of choice. So if they yell and we yell back, well . . . what do we expect them to do next?

A message I often tell my daughter is that she is allowed to feel her feelings. It’s okay, for example, to be angry. It is not, however, okay to treat other people badly because we’re angry. Which is why it’s so useful to look anger in the eye and say, “Ah. I see you. And I understand why you’re here. But it’s time to sit down now, so I can help this T. rex turn back into a human child.”

Allison Wedell SchumacherAllison Wedell Schumacher is a freelance writer, editor, and mom whose diverse work focuses on child abuse prevention, bullying prevention, social-emotional learning, fitness, and theater/acting. She is the author of Shaking Hands with Shakespeare: A Teenager’s Guide to Reading and Performing the Bard (Simon & Schuster, 2004), and her work has been featured here and at,, and Committee for Children. You can find her on LinkedIn.

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2 Responses to How to Help Little Kids with Big Feelings

  1. Denise O'Gara says:

    I am an elementary school counselor and I loved this article. I will be sharing it with the families that I work with. Thank you so much Allison.

  2. justnitablog says:

    I Love It. It Helps

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