Keeping emotions under control — Good Parenting


ThinkstockPhotos 881518818Dear Dr. Debbie,

My complaint is more about my husband than our three-year-old. Ever since she came along, he reacts to her strong emotions with strong emotions of his own. Lately he gets angry with her and wants her to stop her noise. How can I help him to stay calm when she’s upset? It’s clear to me that his pained face and the things he says only make things worse.

Keeping it in Control


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Dear Dear KiiC,

An important skill for a parent to master is to respond appropriately to a child’s emotions. When a child is sad, she needs comfort. When a child is frightened, she needs assurance that she will be protected. When a child is angry, she needs help to resolve her frustration. When a child is super excited, she needs happy affirmation from her adult, not a demand that she stop expressing her excitement.

Early Parent-Child Patterns
Emotional attunement is part of the intimate relationship between an infant and her primary caregivers – parents and other regular care providers. The adult’s role is to accurately read and respond to the baby’s emotions. A baby doesn’t see herself as a separate entity until after getting steady on her own two feet (around 18 months). Until then, her emotions and the adult’s response to them are all part of the same whole. If the baby’s emotions elicit a reaction of soothing, and sufficient help to resolve the distress, she gradually learns how to do this for herself.

Your husband’s difficulties quite possibly arise from his own early childhood. If his feelings were not well read, nor appropriately responded to, he would have found it difficult to regulate overpowering emotions from infancy on. An additional or alternate explanation is that he possesses the temperament trait of Strong Emotions, which suggests a genetic cause of his extreme reactions. Either way, his reactions are not helping your daughter.

Appropriate Reactions
Assuming your husband would like to tone down his reaction and have a more helpful response, offer to coach him or suggest he find professional assistance. If you’d rather approach this more subtly, continue to be a good model and share your thought process after you’ve successfully helped your daughter work through an emotion.

Following are some effective reactions:

1. Translate Child Emotion into Adult Speech. When you hear, “I can’t find my bunny!” accompanied by wailing and sobbing, change it in your mind to “Gosh, that toy must be here          somewhere. I wonder where I left it?” and simply help your daughter look for it.

2. Keep on Swimming. Do like Dory, the fish with the flitting attention, and keep moving ever forward. If your child is fussing about the food as you are putting the dinner on the table, continue until you are satisfied that there are ample choices in front of her or that she’s just not hungry.

3. Empathize. Take the perspective of your child (without BECOMING your child) and make the moment make sense from her point of view. For example, the tragedy of the missing stuffed animal feels to her like she has lost her child. Rather than question this logic, simply accept that she can’t go on until the rabbit is safe in her arms.

4. Look Forward to Looking Back. Some of our most challenging moments with our children make the best anecdotes as time goes by. Take yourself out of the present long enough to think about how you’d like the story to play out – for posterity.

5. Anger Follows Frustration. Pay attention to your daughter’s signs of mounting frustration so you can help her overcome or abandon an obstacle. Don’t frustrate her further by becoming an obstacle yourself!

6. Appreciate the Process. Put her experience into words as if you were quietly narrating a golf match. “Yes, we are all out of peas but there are two other green vegetables on the table. Dad and I are going to have this baked fish but there are hardboiled eggs in the fridge. Let’s see what you are going to choose for a vegetable and a protein.” Rather than engage in an escalating power struggle, passively observe as she works through this disappointment to find a solution for herself.

7. They’re Her Emotions. Acknowledge her emotional state for what it is – an intense encounter with sadness, anger, fear, or happiness. Emotional expression is how a person communicates her inner experience. Let’s say she climbs the ladder of a six-foot sliding board and changes her mind about sliding down. Her fear is real to her. Your thoughts about the safety of the slide, or fears that you have overcome, are irrelevant. While she may be asking for your help, expressing her emotions to you is not an invitation to make this about you.

8. You Have Emotions Too. Are her emotions making you angry? As an adult, you have a much better capacity to mentally move away from the moment. Promise yourself some time off in the very near future. Plan an energy release for yourself – a walk, a workout, etc. Tap out a text to a supportive friend.

9. Big Picture. Frequent strong emotions can be the result of high stress. Lack of sleep, insufficient exercise, inconsistent discipline, overscheduling, and other conditions of stress may be to blame. Take some time to evaluate changes that could be made for a calmer life for your family.

10. Walk Away. It is perfectly appropriate at times to remove yourself as the audience of a child’s emotional outburst. This is especially apt if your reaction might be to criticize her for having an emotion in the first place. However, continually discounting, ignoring or criticizing her expressions of emotion can damage her ability to express and respond to emotions in the future.

Emotions aren’t right or wrong, they just are. When you make that the standard for your family, your daughter will learn the resilience that comes from facing her emotions appropriately.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She has a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children's Museum. Long-time fans and new readers can find many of her "Understanding Children" columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at

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