Children: when their emotions overwhelm them

By: Dr Nicole Plesko-Altermatt

Osler Star Vista
Posted on: 26 Jul 2023

Emotions are complex experiences that involve the consciousness, bodily sensations, and behavioural reactions. They can easily become overwhelming and trigger unwanted actions. To be able to understand and manage emotions is important for children’s wellbeing, but these skills can be tricky to acquire.

Young children especially need help to understand and regulate their emotions. In general, these abilities develop over time. Due to the typical brain changes in the teenage years, adolescents can also experience very strong feelings, but might still lack the skills to respond to them in an adult way.

Why is emotional regulation important?

While it is absolutely normal and ok to feel all the different emotions, not all reactions to these feelings are ok. To express emotions in an appropriate way, to be able to let go of strong feelings, and to control impulsive reactions are vital life skills and enable our children to thrive in school, to build friendships and much more.

Understanding emotions

The first step in managing emotions is to recognise and to name emotions. Very young children might not have the words for the emotions they’re feeling; some children may need help in recognising the signs for rising emotions; and some children will need help in associating bodily sensations with emotional processes.

Here are a few tips on how to support a child in recognising emotions and talking about feelings:

2-3 years old

– Label the emotions for the child (like “You’re smiling – you must be happy”, or “Your sister is crying, because she’s frustrated that she can’t have more chocolate”)
– Look at story books or sing songs about emotions (e.g. “if you’re happy and you know it clap your hands”)
– Let your child engage in imaginative play with dolls, animals, figurines

3-7 years old

– Discuss emotions depicted in books or shows (like “The princess looks scared. Do you know why she’s scared?”, or “The little bear seems very angry – have you ever felt that angry?”)
– Talk about your own emotions (“I had an important meeting today and I am really proud that my presentation went well”)
– Help your child to notice bodily sensations triggered by emotions (like “You seem nervous. Does it feel like you’re having butterflies in your tummy?”, or “When I’m anxious, I can feel a big lump in my throat”)

Pre-teens and teenagers

– Help your child to recognise early, when strong emotions are building up (“You’re clenching your jaw muscles – would you like to take a minute and have a glass of water?”, “You’re starting to speak very loudly – would you like to calm your thoughts first?”)
– Ask them about their strategies in recognising emotions in themselves and others

What to do when your child does get overwhelmed by their emotions

Managing emotions and finding positive ways to deal with them takes practice. Depending on your child’s temperament, emotional meltdowns will vary in frequency and intensity.
It is important that you remain calm and that both you and your child stay safe.

5 steps to help you get through a meltdown

  1. Recognise and name your child’s emotion (“I see that you’re angry”)
  2. Validate their emotion (“I understand that you’re angry because we have to leave the playground now”)
  3. Help and guide them while they’re calming down (stay close to your child, hold them if they want to be held and let them know that you’re here for them. If they start to hurt someone/something remind them calmly that emotions are ok, but hurting/kicking/pushing/… is not ok)
  4. Be patient (depending on your child’s temperament, it can take a little while to calm down)
  5. Discuss your child’s reaction and possible positive ways to deal with emotions when you and your child are calm again

If you would like to discuss emotional regulation more in depth, or you’re worried your child might often react too strongly, or you’d like to get personalised tips on how to manage a specific situation, please feel free to contact any of the doctors here at Osler Health International.

Dr Nicole Plesko-Altermatt is a Swiss trained children’s doctor. She speaks French and German and can support your baby’s development. She is located at our Star Vista clinic. T: 6339 2727



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