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Kid headed for a meltdown? These expert-approved strategies can help them calm down

Here’s what you can do to help when a child’s emotions get out of control.
It's okay my child...
There’s nothing wrong with feeling really angry, jealous or upset. What’s important is how your child responds to those emotions.Getty Images

Maybe your child is feeling sad she doesn’t have any classes with her best friend. Maybe she’s feeling anxious before basketball tryouts. Or maybe she’s feeling angry because you’re reinstating screen time limits with the start of the school year. Lots of things can drive strong emotions in children and teenagers. And you can help them learn healthy ways of coping with those feelings.

To start, kids need to understand that their feelings aren’t bad. They’re allowed to have strong feelings — everyone does. “But we need to make sure that the behaviors that go along with those feelings don’t get them into trouble,” Stephanie Lee, Psy.D., senior director of the ADHD and Behavior Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute, told TODAY. “We want to give them different behaviors to turn to.”

Anthony C. Puliafico, Ph.D., associate professor of medical psychology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, agrees. “There’s nothing wrong with feeling really angry or jealous or upset about something. What’s important is that you’re responding to it in an appropriate way,” he said.

Not all strong emotions trigger disruptive behavior. While kids who feel angry or frustrated may become aggressive — yelling, slamming doors and arguing — kids who feel anxious might shut down or try to escape a situation. And kids who are sad might withdraw. “We see a variety of behaviors that indicate a child is struggling to regulate their emotions. And the behaviors we see depend on the specific emotions a child is having,” Puliafico said.

However they react, you want to give them the tools to manage their strong feelings appropriately. “We’re focusing on kids’ abilities to either learn to tolerate unpleasant feelings and upsetting thoughts or to reduce the intensity of those feelings and thoughts so they can stay on track with their behavior,” Puliafico said.

How to help your child calm down

“We know that thoughts, feelings and behaviors are all directly connected. So, if you’re not successful in changing your feelings, you might have to work on the thoughts or the behaviors to influence that feeling,” Lee said. Here are some strategies that can help:

  • Change the channel. Help your child focus on something they enjoy and bring in all their senses. Maybe they imagine themselves at a water park they love. They feel the water against their skin, see the sunshine, hear the splashes and children’s voices, smell the chlorine, and taste the fried dough they eat there.
  • Take “cookie breaths.” This technique can help your child focus on their breath. Encourage them to smell the cookies, or breathe in through the nose, and blow on the cookies, or breathe out through the mouth.
  • Create a cool-down bin or a coping corner. Have a place kids can turn to when they feel their emotions rising. Fill it with things like Sudoku, chewing gum, a fidget spinner or other items that interrupt their rumination or behavior. (Not electronics, Lee said.)
  • Move to another location. Kids can give themselves a break in their rooms. At school, they can ask to go to the bathroom or get a drink of water to regroup.

Teenagers may want to connect with their friends for support. And that’s fine, as long as they still have independent ways of coping. They might want to take a shower, go for a walk or bike ride, visit the batting cages, play the drums, draw, paint or journal.

Anytime you see your child turn to these techniques to cope, heap praise on them. “We want to go crazy emphasizing the positive and catching kids using these skills,” Lee said.

And make sure these techniques are accessible when your child feels strong emotions coming on. Younger kids can keep an index card with a list of their strategies. Older kids can keep a note on their phone or even change their lock screen to their list if they want quick access to it.

How to help your child build strong coping skills

Discussions about feelings and emotions lay the groundwork for coping with them. Your conversations with your child can help them learn these crucial strategies.

1. Recognize and identify their feelings and emotions.

In conversations with your child, assess whether they understand basic emotions like happiness, sadness and anger and more complex emotions like jealousy or surprise. “Just because a kid says one time, ‘I’m frustrated’ or ‘I’m angry’ doesn’t necessarily mean they understand and grasp what that means,” Lee said.

Labeling a thought or feeling creates some distance for a child between themselves and their thoughts. “And it also helps them see that these thoughts and feelings are just that — they’re thoughts and feelings. They’re not necessarily facts,” Puliafico said.

2. Pay attention to how they feel in their bodies.

When they are experiencing strong emotions, do they feel their heart race or get butterflies in their stomach? Get sweaty? Have a headache? Tuning into their physical sensations can help them be more aware of their emotions.

3. Identify the intensity of an emotion.

“The calming strategies and coping tools we use if you’re at a 9 or 10 [emotionally] are much different than what you might use if you are at a 2 or a 3,” Lee said. For example, cookie breaths might not work if a child is at a 9 or 10 in terms of their anger or anxiety. And if a child tries a strategy that doesn’t work, they might think that what their parent is suggesting isn’t helpful. You can use phrases like a feelings thermometer or big vs. small emotions to help your child label the intensity of their feelings.

4. Understand that emotions are transient.

Kids can learn to recognize that strong feelings of anger, anxiety, guilt or disappointment will feel intense for some time, and then they’ll drop down, Puliafico said. Once they understand this pattern, they can develop strategies for coping while they wait for the intense feelings to subside.

Whenever you’re talking about feelings, heap on the praise. “You’re literally telling them, ‘I love to hear about your feelings.’ ‘Thanks for telling me more about this.’ ‘I feel so connected to you when I know more about these things.’” Lee said. “For teenagers, you can say something like, ‘Thanks for bringing me in on this. That’s really mature.’”

How to model good behavior for your children

“Most parents don’t do a great job of modeling how to calm themselves down,” Lee said. “They might experience a lot of frustration on their drive home from work. But when they come in the door, they’re not going to lead with that information.”

She recommends taking a calm moment to share the “petals, thorns and buds” of your day, or the best part, the worst part and the thing you’re looking forward to. You can share something frustrating or stressful, and what coping strategies you used to help yourself feel better. “We need to help kids understand that this process is ongoing and something adults experience,” she said.

You can also point out calming strategies you use at home. For example, you can say to a child, “Your brother was a little frustrating when he kept telling the same joke. You might have noticed I was taking a couple of deep breaths.”

And if you lose your cool? Acknowledge it, apologize, point out that you’ll try hard to use your coping strategies in the future, and move on. Kids can learn that managing the behaviors that come with strong emotions is something many of us work on for life. “It’s important not just to model how to calm down, but also to model that we all feel strong emotions and sometimes we don’t handle it perfectly right away,” Puliafico said.