What To Do When Our Kids Have Big Feelings
(Part 1)

As parents, we are often on the receiving end of our kids’ big, hard-to-have feelings. Anger. Sadness. Tantrums. Frustration. Worries. It can feel like a lot for a parent to handle. Sometimes our children’s feelings seem out of proportion to the situation. Sometimes their feelings are mystifying–they don’t seem to emerge from any trigger based in fact. And sometimes, their big feelings are about us, and we, in turn, have some big feelings of our own about that. So, what should we do when our kids express big feelings? (I’ll give you a hint: it has six letters and it starts with the letter “L.”)


That’s right. Listen. It sounds so simple, and yet it’s one of the hardest things for most parents to do competently and consistently. Most of us think we do a pretty good job of listening. But if we really pay attention to our responses to our children, we may find some areas for growth.

Here are some typical traps parents fall into from time to time, paired with some more empathic and supportive alternatives:



We try to talk our kids out of their feelings. 


This typically sounds something like this: “Oh, come on, Junior, you don’t really feel that way.”  Fortunately or unfortunately, kids–even snarky adolescents–believe their parents’ judgments.  What we say carries weight with them, even if they don’t show it.  So when we suggest that they shouldn’t feel a certain way, they begin to doubt themselves.  A child may think, “I really feel this way, but Dad says I shouldn’t, so there must be something wrong with me that I still do.”

Hear them out with compassion.

We don’t have to agree with or even understand our children’s feelings to be able to listen.  If we can suspend our own judgment and hear them out, ideally patiently and with caring body language, we signal that we accept that their big feelings are real to them and that that’s okay.  Later, when they are calm and ready to problem-solve, we can help them examine other ways to approach the problem that might yield easier-to-have feelings.

We rush to shut them up.  

This may be a simple “Stop crying!” Or perhaps something like, “I’ve heard enough of this nonsense.  If you’re going to talk this way, go to your room.”  Sadly, statements like these say that we don’t wish to spend our time or energy listening to our children’s troubles.  Kids may even come to believe that they are unacceptable or unlovable to us if they express big feelings.

Let them yell or cry it out.

Our children’s yelling or crying won’t kill us, and while they’re yelling and crying, they can’t hear logic.  Instead, we can sit patiently with them as they work it out of their systems.  If we’re in public, we can say, “I hear you, Sweetheart.  Let’s go find a good place where you can really let it all out.”  We can remember that caring for our children’s feelings appropriately is worth withstanding a few judgmental looks from strangers (or even extended family members).

We let our own emotional reaction upstage our child’s feelings.  

When we have big emotional reactions to our children’s feelings, our kids often learn to stop telling us how they feel: they don’t want to trigger another “feeling storm” in us.  They were already feeling bad, and now we’re making it worse by ranting about how their feelings make us feel.  Somebody needs to be the adult in this situation, and, parents, that somebody is us.

Exercise self-control. 



This requires us to put on our “grown-up pants,” but we can do it for the sake of our child’s emotional health.  We can take some deep breaths and resume that patient and caring attitude.  We can make a mental note to tell our partner, friend, journal, or therapist all about it later.

In our next blog, we’ll discuss 3 more parenting traps and suggest alternatives to use when children experience big feelings.  When we role model healthier ways to handle big feelings, we help our kids develop critical emotional skills that will help them navigate all the big feelings they’ll encounter across the lifespan.  

Sarah Ince, LCSW

Licensed Clinical Social Worke