Children need to learn to control their emotions or their emotions will control them. As a parent, it is your job to teach them how to do this. This article will give you some tools and ideas on how to handle this and how to teach your child to be in control of themselves through various common emotions.
First, take a moment to watch these two very short videos.
Video with child hitting mom:
Video of child crying about dreams about waffles:
The first video is an example of a mom who has completely lost control of her children. They are ruled by their inappropriate responses to their emotions and she has allowed it. The second is an example of something that some people think is cute. I believe it is sad and worrisome. This video shows a child who is not in control of her own mind and her own emotions, and the person filming her doesn’t understand the problem. Part of the problem today is some child psychologists have determined that nearly every problem found in childhood is some kind of disorder in the child rather than a parenting issue. There is nothing wrong with most children. Most children who misbehave do so because of a lack of appropriate parenting responses. Let's first look at a "disorder" described by child psychologists.
Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Here’s the definition: “A disorder in a child marked by defiant and disobedient behavior to authority figures. Treatment can help, but this condition can't be cured Chronic: can last for years or be lifelong Requires a medical diagnosis Lab tests or imaging not required The cause of oppositional defiant disorder is unknown but likely involves a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Symptoms generally begin before a child is eight years old. They include irritable mood, argumentative and defiant behavior, aggression, and vindictiveness that last more than six months and cause significant problems at home or school.”
Here are some of the symptoms described: Your child throws huge tantrums when he gets home from school, and the consequences for acting out only make him more agitated. Simple reminders, like to put socks in the hamper and not on the floor, trigger aggression or meltdowns. Consequences don’t work, nor do they seem to have any impact on behavior. Your child just doesn’t take rules seriously. You’re like a broken record. Your child hears, but ignores you over and over. Your child tells little lies, even after you’ve stressed the importance of telling the truth. Public tantrums in restaurants and check-out lines are keeping you and your family homebound. It’s like your child is seeking conflict, purposely trying to ignite your anger. Your child refuses to accept blame when he has done something wrong.
This is seriously what hurts my heart. This is not a “disorder” of the child but a parenting problem. When something like this is diagnosed, it gives the parents an excuse not to fix what they need to fix in their own parenting skills—and to chalk more of the same behavior up to their disorder. I hurt for the child and the parent who give in to this idea because they are headed for more sorrow and pain. The truth is they need to parent differently, show love to their child more aggressively, give more personal attention and build their relationship, find ways to effectively change the attitude, and not allow or excuse bad behavior. The anger that is being expressed when ODD is diagnosed is because of that lack of trust we have discussed in previous sessions. But, the parent should not allow for bad behavior regardless of the circumstances.
Children often act aggressively when they do not know how to express themselves. When they feel as if they are not being listened to or acknowledged. Their immaturity causes them to react to neglect, disregard or criticism with anger rather than having control and thinking through these emotions.
There are several skills that parents need to have to help children deal with their emotions. The first and most important is real eye to eye communication. Your child needs to know you see them and you understand their frustrations and concerns. Talk to them about the different kinds of emotions and ask them if they understand what each is and how it is expressed.
All children and adults need to have control over their emotions and not allow them to rule their behavior. Tell them that they can either be in charge of their emotions or their emotion can be in charge of them. Explain how important it is that they have the control and their emotions do not. In order for them to take control - they need to have a simple process of thought and rely on it to make decisions about what to do when emotions begin to get out of control.
Children must learn to STOP, THINK, RESPOND appropriately.
STOP - as soon as they recognize they are becoming emotional, stop and reflect.
THINK - what options do they have about how to respond and what are the consequences to each option?
RESPOND - make a choice that will be of most benefit to themselves and others.
Let’s look at some different emotions, some reactions and some solutions to each. ANGER Anger is the emotion that is mostly used to excuse bad behavior both in children and adults. It usually builds over time and if it is caught early is easier to manage. The first thing to think about with expressions of any emotion is the root cause. When your child is expressing anger, immediately stop any bad behavior by taking action. This may be covering the mouth if the child is small to stop screaming or fussing until they get control themselves. It may be sending a child to their room if they are older and need to calm down. It may be as easy as sitting down with them and having a conversation right at that moment.
But bratty behavior, physical aggression, verbal abuse or disrespectful attitudes are never acceptable under any circumstances. Immediately stop any signs of these four things.
Once the immediate problem of bad behavior is under control, have an eye to eye contact conversation with your child about the issues that caused the outburst. Do not be angry in your reaction back to them. Let them know you hear them. Tell them you love them and because you do, you cannot allow them to behave badly. Let them know when they are angry, they must learn to control that emotion and think through the reasons for it.
Then, you should consider with them whether their anger is reasonable or if it is misplaced. For instance, are they angry at others for something that is their own fault? Are they angry for a consequence that they themselves created? Are they angry for someone else because another person was mistreated? Is the anger really a substitute for sadness over another issue? Talk about options of what to do to remedy the problem and again remind them anger does not solve problems but creates more problems.
Let them know being angry is ok but acting inappropriately is not ok.
QUESTION: Your child is angry because another child has taken a toy they were playing with first. They hit the other child on the head. When you go to correct them, they hit you. What do you do?
ANSWER: This child has not been taught to control their emotions and uses physical aggression to express frustration. First, take the child away from the situation and make them sit quietly until they calm down. If they cry or scream in frustration, cover their mouth until they are finished.
After they have completely calmed down and agreed they are ready to talk, have a discussion with them about hitting others. Let them know physical aggression is never an appropriate response to their anger. Remind them that they forgot to STOP, THINK, RESPOND.
Empathize with the fact that the other child took their toy and how that was wrong of them. But hitting is not appropriate anyway. Then, ask them what would the appropriate response have been.
Let them know the next time STOP, THINK, RESPOND. They could ask for the toy back. If it is not given back, to talk to the person in charge and let them know the problem. If that person does not remedy the situation, to let mommy know even if they have to let you know later and you can discuss it.
Make sure they understand to STOP, THINK, and RESPOND appropriately. Go over this with them each time they respond inappropriately to a situation. FEAR Fear is the emotion that is used to stop us from accomplishing goals. Fear can even keep us from doing the right thing. When your child shows fear, the first thing to do is to assess whether their fear is warranted. Do they have a fear of something that is a true threat to their well-being? Or is their fear related to a potential for embarrassment, failure or rejection?
Handling fear inappropriately consists of making a decision based up on it. Not on the true potential for physical harm. That decision should be made because of thought. Thinking through the safety of a situation and deciding it is not safe is different than basing a decision on fear itself. Fear should never be a driving force to stop one from moving forward. But, it can be a warning sign to consider before making a reasonable decision.
I have discussed with you before about the parents who allow their child to use his fear of water to stop him from participating in events with his youth group. Is a fear of water warranted? Well, it could be. People do drown. The question is whether it is a reasonable response to that possibility by completely avoiding the water. No, that is not a reasonable response. Thinking it through, learning to have skills in the water is the more reasonable and actually safe response.
Similarly, when your child shows fear, think about why they are fearful and talk through it with them. Do not allow fear to rule their decisions or behaviors. Help them work through the fear and find accomplishment on the other side of it. When they do, they will learn to regulate their fears and conquer that emotion.
Talk to them about the different kinds of fears such as fear of peers, fear of authority, fear of physical harm, and fear of God. Some fears need to be overcome and some need to be heeded. Help them learn how to discern so they can make mature choices.
QUESTION: Your child is afraid of dogs for no reason that you can figure out. You go to a friend’s house and they have a friendly dog. They run away in fear. What should you do?
ANSWER: Remind them to STOP, THINK, RESPOND. Ask your friend if it is ok to use this time as a lesson. Bring your child over to the dog and talk to them about it. Tell them that this is a friendly dog, and have it sit nearby. Feed the dog some treats and pet it as you talk. Ask questions of your child about the dog. What color is the dog? What’s is it’s name? How many legs does it have? Do you know where it sleeps? Etc.
Then require the child to pet the dog. Work with the child as they learn that the dog is friendly. They need to overcome this fear. Of course, teach them to always ask the owner before petting a dog because some dogs aren’t friendly. When they pet the dog, praise them and let them know they are very brave to overcome their fear!
HAPPINESS Some of you are no doubt thinking, why would we need to talk about how to handle the emotion of happiness? Your child needs to be in control of ALL their emotions. Not just those that cause obvious behavioral issues. How do you think happiness can be handled inappropriately?
Have you ever seen a child be overly silly? Continuing to laugh without stopping or behave crazy in response to a good mood? We are all happy along with a person when they are showing signs of happiness and usually this is something with which we can all share. But sometimes, especially in immature children (and even immature adults), happiness becomes an excuse for overly silly or even rude behavior. In adults, it is used as an excuse to drink alcohol and party all hours of the night. Is that appropriate behavior to express happiness? No.
If you want to teach your child wisdom, they need to understand ALL emotions need to come under appropriate expressions. When a child is out of control acting silly because they are having a good time, it is not uncommon for that to be irritating to others around them. They may be running around uncontrollably, screaming or laughing loudly while others are talking, or interrupting the activities of others because of their random expressions of happiness.
A child should be able to express happiness with reasonable behavior. Laughing at appropriate times with others as they tell a funny joke. Jumping momentarily when they are surprised with an unexpected gift, or saying thank you with a big hug to a relative who has agreed to take them out. This is all fine and good!
I have seen a grandmother reprimand a mom who was telling her child to calm down when the child was out of control with happiness. Jumping about, laughing loudly, and running around acting silly in the midst of others who were trying to have a conversation. The mother recognized the child was out of control because of something they were going to be able to do later, but the grandmother said, “They are just happy! They should be allowed to express themselves!”
No, they should not be allowed to express themselves when those expressions are at the expense of everyone else around them. And, they should learn to appropriately control themselves when they feel happy as well as when they feel sad or angry.
If your child is expressing happiness by being overly silly or obnoxious, let them know you are very glad they are feeling good, but they must not lose control of their behavior. Let them know appropriate ways to express themselves and when they are out of line, stop them.
QUESTION: You have a friend and their child over for a play day with your children. Their children are acting overly silly, running around inside the house. They are screaming and laughing so loudly that it is piercing the ears of others. You start to correct your child and your friend says, “Don’t worry, they are just having fun!” What do you do?
ANSWER: Let your friend know that you are trying to help your child rule over their emotions by having self-control. When talking to your friend, of course, don’t mention that their child is out of control too! Just make sure they understand you are working with your child on this.
Take your child aside and calm them down. Let them know you are so happy they are having a good time with their friend, but they are getting out of control with their emotions. If they do not calm down immediately and play appropriately, make them sit out until you feel they are ready to do so. Make sure they understand what is appropriate (playing quietly in the house, building blocks together, etc.) and what is not (screaming, running, etc.)
If that doesn’t work, take them in the other room, remind them to STOP, THINK, RESPOND and have another short discussion. If they still do not listen and pay attention to what you are saying, it may be time to apply punishment if necessary. That will calm them down and they will be able to go out and play appropriately.
SADNESS Sadness is an emotion that can cause real depression but can also be used as an excuse to coddle. Real sadness should have reasonable expression and a reasonable time period to recover. Sometimes that means a few minutes and sometimes it can be a few days. But it can also be taken to an extreme and used to squeeze every bit of attention possible from others.
In little children, it is really important to be understanding if they feel sadness over something that is reasonable for this emotion. They have lost a pet or it has died. They have gotten in trouble and feel sad for losing a privilege. A parent is sick or they are sick. These are all reasonable times for some sadness or grief. But there is a limit to what is acceptable in the expression of this emotion.
When a child feels sad, empathy certainly should be shown for their situation. Many times, a big hug and words of encouragement are needed. Your behavior in showing empathy will help your child understand how to comfort others in their times of sadness. Showing compassion with words and expressions of understanding are definitely appropriate.
Then there is an out of control situation where sadness is used as a tool of manipulation. When a child falls down and scrapes their knee, what is an appropriate response to the sadness and emotion shown? Have you seen a child milk that for everything its worth? Have you seen a parent overly comfort a child as they scream in agony over a scratch that is not even visible to the naked eye?
Seriously, this is a time when a child needs to learn to control themselves. If they are really hurt, crying is appropriate, but screaming and continually scratching at others for attention is not. Crying as you comfort them from a true injury is fine, but helping them to cope by telling them to calm down and think through what to do to fix the problem is a good lesson.
If they are milking the situation, and it is clear that they are not really injured but just upset for falling down, it should be treated as any other time when they are behaving badly. Have them STOP, THINK, RESPOND. Then, if they do not behave appropriately, have them sit out of playtime until they get control of themselves.
When they have gained control of themselves, have a short conversation with them about how to appropriately express sadness.
One great lesson to a small child is to let them know happiness is a choice. If they choose sadness, they will be sad. Something I often did with my small children was tell them to go to their room until they had a “happy spirit”. This meant that if they had a negative, mopey or sad attitude, I let them know this was not a good choice. If they choose to behave that way, I would not allow it to spread around to others. They would need to go away from others, choose a happy attitude, and then they could return to be with us. This let them know they choose whether they would be happy or sad.
QUESTION: Your child has a special toy they sleep with every night. They left it at a friend’s house across town and it is time for bed. Your child is ready to have a breakdown because they don’t have their toy. Do you call the friend’s mother and ask to go pick it up? What do you do?
ANSWER: Remind them to STOP, THINK, RESPOND. What are the responses they can give to not getting what they want right now? What are the outcomes of those responses? Part of this would be up to you as a parent, wouldn't it? Do they know they will be coddled and you will hop to their every whim? Or do they recognize they must control themselves and deal with disappointment?
Let your child know you understand they want to have their special toy, but it is not here right now. Do not go over to the friend's house and get it. Your child should not believe it is necessary for them to have this item to go to sleep. They may be sad, and that is understandable, but they can deal with it. They can control their emotions. Do not allow fussing or bad behavior.
Remind them they choose happiness or sadness and this is a time to choose happiness. Offer another toy. If they refuse, let them know that is their choice and continue with your regular bedtime routine.
EMBARRASSMENT The emotion of embarrassment can be used as an excuse to withdraw from society. The best remedy for most embarrassing situations is for a person to learn to make fun of themselves and not take failures as some kind of truth about the person that they are inside.
The fear of embarrassment can cause a person not accomplish their goals… as we talked about in the FEAR section. But what about when embarrassment inevitably comes, as it does to all of us at some point? How should we teach them to handle it?
It’s a good idea to talk to your children about embarrassment before it happens. If they haven’t experienced real embarrassment yet, have a talk about what that feels like. If they have experienced it, they likely will never forget it! We could probably all relate to that!
There are three kinds of embarrassing situations.
First, is when a person is caught doing something that is wrong and they know it… like lying, stealing, cheating, etc.
Second, when a person has no control over what has happened but it still reflects on them. (they fall down in public, say something because of ignorance about a subject,they are put on the spot in a class at school, etc.)
Third, when a person is embarrassed because of peer pressure.
All three types - STOP, THINK, RESPOND.
For the first type, (wrong doing) This is a time when a child should learn to confess and remedy the problem they created with their own bad choices. Let them know the embarrassment they feel is a consequence of the bad behavior and to cherish it as a lesson they can take with them through life to remind them to do the right thing, and to teach others of what happened to them when they made that mistake.
Help them to see this emotion under these circumstances as a gift. Let them know the quicker they confess the truth and accept the consequences, the sooner it will all go away and the gift of the lesson will be learned and there for them for the rest of their life.
For the second type, (no control over circumstances) There is a time when an explanation may be warranted… but there is also a time to just take in the circumstances and laugh along with everyone else. We all have short comings, are ignorant about some things, and even have no control over what happens to us at times. When your child has a good self-image, they can usually get through this kind of embarrassment without any lasting issues. Help them to understand this kind of embarrassment can be handled by making light of yourself and instead of allowing others to make fun of you, join them in the fun and make fun of yourself.
For the third type, (peer pressure) This is when a child needs to know that embarrassment is an inappropriate emotion to allow into their heart under these circumstances. It may happen… but they need to overcome it immediately. STOP, THINK, RESPOND. Help them to think through what is going on. To learn that standing up for what is right should warrant a response of sadness for their friends that want to do something wrong, and pride in one’s self and in their relationship with the Lord that would give them a sense of purpose and accomplishment to overcome peer pressure.
Warn them about this kind of embarrassment and that when it comes, it is a warning sign to them that they need to strengthen their relationship with God and rely on Him to be their guide and protector. Ask them to tell you whenever they feel pressured and embarrassed to stand up for what is right so you can support them in accomplishing that goal. Also, discuss choosing friends that would not put them in this position in the first place.
QUESTION: Your son comes home from school and complains that he doesn’t know his multiplication tables when asked by his teacher in front of the whole class. He was put on the spot and embarrassed and the other children laughed at him. He knew he needed to learn them but kept putting it off. What do you do?
ANSWER: Talk to him about his embarrassment and empathize that this must have been difficult. Remind him though that it is a consequence of him procrastinating his study time. STOP at the moment of embarrassment. THINK - what outcome do I want in this moment? RESPOND - In a way that would make that outcome happen.
Tell him to take it as a lesson and the way to not allow it to happen again is to study up and make sure he knows the material. Also, he can make fun of himself if he goofs up and be light hearted about it rather than getting angry with others.
LOVE I saved this emotion for last because it can be the most subtly destructive of all the emotions we have discussed. This emotion can seem wonderful and thrilling but can lead to a complete turn from the right path if it is allowed to grow under the wrong circumstances.
Every child needs to know that this emotion when applied to friends and to the opposite sex can either be a road to joy or a path to destruction. This is the one emotion that the world tells us not to control.
Naturally a child is going to look at the world around them and see very different pictures and hear various stories about the word “love”. It is your responsibility as a parent to make sure that your child has a clear understanding of what love is and what love isn’t because the world will make the whole subject very confusing.
Explain to your child the difference between the love of a parent, sibling, friend and dating interest. Give them a true understanding of your beliefs and what is and is not appropriate … not only to express… but to allow to grow within them in relation to feelings of love. Let them know they CAN control where their emotions go if they recognize how to do this. Our love for others as Christians can be to all people. This is the emotion of deep care and concern for the well-being of all those around us. Explain this kind of love to your children. Tell them it is different than the kind of emotion they can start to feel for a friend and the loyalty that can come about, and that it is different than a dating interest.