We all experience the big feelings from time to time, and when it comes to parenting those big feelings can come from small experiences (how can there possibly be banana on the couch again?!). Managing big emotions in real time can be a challenge, whether those emotions are coming from you or your tot.  For some basics on how to handle these situations as they arise and ways to communicate about anger, anxiety, and sadness with your little ones, we drilled Dr.Vinay Saranga M.D., a child psychiatrist and founder of Saranga Comprehensive Psychiatry.  Spoiler alert: he was majorly helpful.   

When a parent acts in a negative way around their child, is it always a “bad” thing? When a parent acts out in a negative way around their child, whether that’s getting angry, upset, anxious or experiences any other emotions, it’s not always a bad thing. In fact, it is perfectly acceptable at times because it shows a child that parents are human too and have reactions to certain stimuli. 

However, we really want to minimize this kind of behavior simply because very young children really don’t have a full sense of what is taking place and can’t distinguish the seriousness of the reaction. Where it becomes a really “bad” thing is when the child is constantly exposed to this behavior. The child sees this and believes that this is normal, and begins to build these characteristics into his or her own behavior and reactions. 

As they say, everything in moderation.  If and when a child does see a parent have a big emotional reaction, what is the best course of action? If your child does witness you have a highly emotional reaction, address it immediately. Be honest with your children and tell them this is not how they should respond. Explain to them that you simply overreacted and more importantly, let them know how you should have handled it. For example, you can say something like, “Mommy just got really upset. I’m sorry if I scared you. Next time, I will take a few deep breaths, gather myself together and respond more appropriately.”

Let’s flip the script for a moment. When a toddler is exhibiting anger or anxiety, what’s the most effective way help her manage? When a child is exhibiting anger or anxiety, a parent should deal with it right away, but the way it is dealt with depends on each situation.

Anxiety: If your child is having anxiety over something, many times these fears are a result of the unknown. Let’s use starting school as an example. Most children are scared and have thoughts like: What will my teacher be like? Will the other children be nice? Is the school a big place? The best way to address anxiety is to let your children know as many facts about the situation as possible. Let them see the school and meet the teacher ahead of time.  It’s important to tackle anxiety early on because you don’t want your children growing up in fear of most things.

Children also experience fear after a bad experience. For example, many children don’t like to go to the doctor because last time they got a shot and it hurt. Have an honest conversation with your children that although they will have to get shots from time to time, the doctor is a good person who is there to help them. 

Anger: Anger is different but must also be addressed with your children. There are many reasons behind anger issues, but many times it’s just a child’s way of acting out because he or she didn’t get what he wanted. This is the perfect time to have a real conversation about how the world works. Explain to your kids that there will be times that they don’t always get their way and there will be times where things seem unfair. Let your children know that acting out and getting angry is not the way to handle things. I advise talking to your children first and foremost. Talk to them about their feelings. Never give in to their demands after the outburst; otherwise, they will think this is how they get their way all the time. Teach them how to calm down, relax and walk away from the situation until they are feeling better. A small time-out is something that a lot of parents successfully use to help their children control anger. 

Any tips on how to start a conversation about feelings with a toddler? The important thing to remember when talking to your children about their emotions is to never place blame or make them feel bad for the way they are feeling. It is best to approach each conversation with compassion and ease. You should also frame it in a more positive manner. A few ways to start the conversation:

  • If you are feeling scared, tell mommy so she can help you feel better.
  • You’re always so happy but you seem a little down today. Is something bothering you?
  • You and Michelle are such good friends. Why did you get angry with her today?
  • Your teacher said you got mad when it was cleanup time. I know you love to play with your toys, but can we talk about what happened?
  • You seem so happy at school and your teacher says you are having fun. Did something scare you today? 

Are there any specific toys, books, games, or other tools you’d recommend as effective in helping toddlers handle anger, anxiety, and/or sadness? There are many great books for children that talk about handling their emotions:

  • The Feelings Book – Todd Parr (Younger Kids) 
  • The Way I Feel – Janan Cain (4-8 years old)
  • Understanding Myself: A Kid’s Guide to Intense Emotions and Strong Feelings – Mary Lamia (Pre-teen)