Parenting a Child who has Intense Emotions

What's Covered

Have you ever gone to the supermarket and noticed that one child with emotional meltdown and tantrums just because the parent refused to buy a bigger tin of ice cream? Every parent has found themselves in a situation where you visit a friend and since her child is so adorable, you carry him/her; then, your child starts crying, pushing the child, and throwing herself on the ground due to jealousy for the other baby. The child might not know how to label this emotion; therefore, she expresses it the only way she knows how that is, acting out.

Intense emotions definition

These are intense feelings expressed by children as they grow and gain self-identity. Some children tend to have emotional outbursts and aggression that they are unable to deal with. These emotions can be positive like happiness or negative like jealousy, frustration, anger, sadness, etc. Children can display intense emotions as early as one year. Children with intense emotions tend to display emotions more intensely than others of the same age. Some emotions are natural others are derived from natural emotions, for example, getting angry is a natural emotion. Studies done have indicated that children are aware of complex emotions but they don’t understand what kind of environments invokes the emotions.[1]

How to determine if your child has Intense emotions

Parents can determine whether the emotions their children are expressing are stronger than those of other children of the same age by monitoring; how intense the child expresses the emotions compared to others; how long it takes before the child calms down; if the child shows the same emotional response to other similar situations; and whether the child responds the same way to a wider scope of different circumstances.[2]Children with strong emotions tend to express their feelings intensely, longer, similarly across all overwhelming situations.

Types of Intense emotions common in children

The most common strong emotions that children tend to display include:

  1. Happiness-Children tends to show when they are happy by smiling, laughing, being playful, and gratification. Every child has got a different thing that makes them happy. Some children draw happiness from playing, getting gifts, listening to music having a fun time with family among others. Parents should learn to cultivate happiness in children for healthy growth.
  2. Anger-A child can display angry feelings when annoyed or displeased. Hostility is one way a child gets when frustrated or pained. Angry emotions can be destructive to a child when not managed well by the parents/caregivers. Highly temperamental children tend to get angry fast and react to the feeling. A child’s fight or flight action to this feeling can be to hit, throw things or yell. A child with strong emotions tends to be quick-tempered and gets angry over time more than others.
  3. Sadness-Children may be helpless at times and cry for the help of their parents. Children may be sorrowful when they experience a loss, when disappointed, when they miss parents when parents are separating when exposed to pain, among others.
  4. Jealousy– A child may feel jealous when you carry another child, when he/she is given less attention, when toys are bought for other siblings in the house and not him/her etc. when the feeling of jealousy is not dealt with, it can lead to resentment and insecurity.
  5. Fear -Kids tend to fear when faced with a threatening situation. Fear can also be developed from past painful experiences that a child may not want to undergo again, for example, an accident. Children also have fearful emotions naturally such as fear for strangers, darkness, and being taken away from the parents.
  6. Children may also display frustrations when met with tough challenges they are unable to deal with.

 How do young children display Intense emotions?

Young children who are experiencing a mixture of emotions for the first time normally do not know the words to assign to their feelings. Therefore, they tend to display frustrations by acting out and throwing tantrums by either crying a lot and when angry, hit others, yell, frown or destroy property. Happy children tend to like hugs, smiles, or laughs and are very playful. Some children may express sadness by withdrawing from others, exhibiting low moods, crying, and keeping quiet. Fear can be expressed by running away or hiding from the threat. When the feeling is intense, the child may tremble and breathe rapidly.

Parenting styles to handle child who has intensive emotions

When raising a child with intense emotions, you must be aware of the parenting style you are using and whether it is good for the child or not. There is four main parenting style:

1.      Dismissing

This is a parent who has no emotional awareness and tends to ignore and treat the child’s feelings as unimportant. Such a parent wants a quick fix to the child’s emotional meltdowns and may use distractions to shut the child’s emotional meltdown. This parent is less concerned about what the child is trying to communicate and views a child’s acting out as a way of seeking attention. This type of parent believes that the negative emotions a child expresses are harmful to the child and that dealing with them may just worsen the situation. This is the parent who tries to fix the child’s emotional problem instead of addressing the sources of the emotional meltdowns and outbursts. This type of parent is usually overwhelmed and thinks that with time the child will calm down and the problem will go away. This type of parenting is not helpful to the child in any way since it only makes the child think that their emotions are wrong and invalid. Children may think that there is something wrong with them because of how they express what they feel and they may find it hard regulation these emotions.

2.      Disapproving

This is the type of parent that is worse than the dismissing parent. This parent is judgmental and criticizes the child’s emotions and disciplines the child when she expresses her emotions. This parent only believes in god behavior and nothing else. This type of parent believes that negative emotions in children need to be controlled since they portray bad behavior. This type of parent believes that emotions are a source of weakness for children therefore focusing on them is a waste of time. This kind of parent is very authoritative and believes that negative emotions are a way of manipulation from children. This kind of parenting is not healthy for children since it makes them feel unappreciated, disrespected, and invalidates their feelings. These children have unregulated emotions.

3.      The laissez-faire parent

This kind of parent accepts all emotional expressions from children and comforts the child in case of meltdowns but offers little behavior guidance to the child. This type of parenting offers no teaching about emotions to the children and doesn’t help the child solve the emotional problems experienced. There are no limits set for negative emotions. This type of parent believes that little can be done about negative emotions and doesn’t offer any emotion management and regulation strategy. This type of parenting affects children negatively since they have unregulated emotions, therefore, affecting their social skills and behavior negatively.[3]

4.      Emotion coaching

this kind of parent appreciates and makes the child feel important by valuing the child’s emotions and taking time to bond and talk to the child to find a solution to the negative emotions expressed. This type of parent is aware of the child’s emotions and knows how to respond in case of a meltdown. This parent doesn’t criticize or make fun of the child’s emotional expressions and doesn’t dictate how a child is to express their feelings. This type of parent allows freedom of emotional expression to the child. Children under this type of parenting are well behaved and get along well with everyone. These children are confidently aware of their feelings, can regulate their emotions, and solve problems easily.

Teaching emotion management to children with intense emotions.

When children are growing up, they experience tones of intense emotions that they can’t express or deal with. Therefore, parents need to put words to these emotions for children and equip them with the skills to help in self-regulation and emotional management. Children must learn how to deal with tough emotions, instead of acting out, avoiding, or suppressing them. Emotional regulation and management shape a child’s behavior and enhance academic excellence at school. Adolescents should be taught how to handle disappointing situations and ask for assistance from parents/guardians whenever necessary. Teaching children to manage their emotions can also teach better conflict resolution with peers. Studies done in Australia and Indonesia indicates that authoritative parental styles in instilling emotion regulation in children lead to fewer behavioral problems and higher emotion regulation.[4]  Here are some of the ways of teaching strong emotion regulation in children:

Emotion Recognition-As a parent/guardian, it is important to identify the feelings of your child and the reasons behind the displayed emotion. A child may be moody and it is upon the parent to know whether it is because of sickness or sadness. The first step of emotion management is to identify what the child is dealing with. This applies to very young children. There are several learning materials such as stem toys available that teach parents and children emotion identification.

Thought-Spot I Know What to Do Feeling/Moods Book / Poster
this book enables a child to express feelings and creativity. It also has a variety of emotion emojis that helps a child identify his/her emotion thus improving the child’s social also eases a parent’s job by teaching them how to understand better their children’s feelings.

Understanding the source of the emotion-Try to establish the root cause of the emotion without jumping to conclusions. Talk to the child to determine what triggers the emotions to find a solution. For example, a child may be feeling sad and angry because of restrictions not to play outside with friends due to rains or disease outbreaks like the COVID19 pandemic. Talk to the child ask why the child is feeling emotional.

Accurately label the emotion-Improve the child’s emotional vocabulary by helping in naming the emotions they are feeling. Let it not just be the normal sad or happy emotions. When a child can describe and identify different emotions, their needs are likely to be met easily. Parents can buy books to help the child with labeling emotions and feelings.

Expressing emotions-Be a role model to your child when expressing emotions. When parents express their real emotions in front of their children even the difficult ones like when upset, then, children learn to express and talk about their emotions too. Parents should not pass down bias emotional expressions that they went through such as avoidance and suppression, to their children. Show the child that it is okay to have these emotions at desirable levels and practice self-regulation skills in front of the kids. Talk about how you feel and let your child join you, for example in practicing deep breathes.

Self-sensitization –Teaching children how to regulate emotions is the best strategy to apply. Teach young children how to regulate even the strongest of emotions like disappointments and frustrations. Teenagers tend to struggle with emotions due to hormonal imbalance and such should be shown the positive side of every negative occurrence. Studies on emotion regulation indicate that poor parental emotion regulation technique taught children at early adolescent stages leads to problematic behaviors at late adolescent stages.[5]

Regulating emotions-Let the child develop a way of dealing with tough emotions by herself. When the child is calm, discuss her emotions with her and ask her the source of the emotions she feels. Talk about what triggers her feelings and practice with her different self-regulation strategies. This helps since when the child is aware of her emotions and what causes the outbursts, she can apply self-regulation before the emotion manifests and it’s too late. This also builds the child’s confidence towards handling different difficult situations.

Emotion Regulation strategies

  • Taking deep breaths-When a child feels very angry and frustrated, teach how to take slow deep breathes in and out for some time until they are calm. After this talk to the child to understand what he/she is feeling and some solutions. This strategy works for both young and older children.
  • Listening to music-This best works with headphones. Give headphones to the child and play for him or her some soothing music to the ear. This can help the child to calm down and block stressful emotions.
Riwbox Bluetooth Headphones
this headphone provide high-quality music that is not harmful to the child’s ear, very soothing to the ear and is very affordable.
  • Engage the child in drawing or molding activities-Having the child draw pictures of what is causing the emotions they are feeling may soothe and bring relief to the child. For young children, parents can also buy molding clay and let the child roll it and make different things.
Crayola Modeling Clay
this is the best modeling clay for kids to create different things and have fun with the different is soft and doesn’t dry making it easy for the child to use and create anything they imagine.
  • Hugs –Hugs work magic for children. Whenever a child is sad or frustrated, hug them and it will help calm them down. Every child needs to be shown lots of love.
  • Talking a walk with children whenever they have intense emotions will give them relief.
  • Keeping quiet can also help a child recollect his/her thoughts and calm down.
  • Counting numbers is not only educational but can also help to calm down a child with emotional outbursts.
  • Establish the child’s emotion boosters and have plenty around so that when they get emotional, they can be used to calm down the child. For example, favorite snacks.

For parents;

Try to anticipate the emotion by studying your child to discover the causes of her outbursts every time. This is helpful since certain outbursts can be avoided and prevented from occurring. When a child is overwhelmed with emotions, stop solving the problem, instead identify and label the emotion. Addressing the emotion helps lower the emotions to a level that is manageable for the child. Apologize to the child when you wrong her in any way. Try to explain that you were overcome by your feelings and that you will do better. Letting her know it’s okay to make mistakes is helpful for her emotional awareness and growth. Teach the child about forgiveness as well by forgiving her and yourself.

Parents with no emotion management skills should read books that talk about different intense emotions displayed by children and how to manage them for the betterment of the child.

Parenting a Child Who Has Intense Emotions
this is the best book for parents dealing with a highly aggressive child with emotional outbursts
Playground Politics:Understanding the Emotional Life of Your School-Age Child
this book is perfect for parents to understand the overwhelming emotions school-going children go through making parenting smooth and easier.
Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child Kindle Edition
this book is perfect for choosing the best parenting style for your child and coaching about emotions to children.

The don’ts when teaching emotion management and regulation

  • Rewarding your child for keeping calm-gifting or giving your child a treat for managing their emotions is risky since the child may be acting out every time, they need something from you expecting to get a reward.
  • Giving your child too much attention- when comforting a child, ensure not to overdo it since the child may do this every time to seek your attention.
  • Often calming your child down-let the child be able to develop a way of handling his/her emotions on his/her own. It is important to help the child but calming the child down every time they have outbursts is not helping them in any way.
  • Shouting at your child to stop crying- this may make the child think that they are committing an offense by crying. The child will become more upset and intolerable making it difficult to calm down.
  • Telling everyone about the sensitivity of your child- don’t let everyone that interacts with your child know that your child is insensitive and experiences intense emotions. Let the child grow and handle her emotions even in social places.

Final Thoughts

Parenting a child with intense emotions is overwhelming and challenging for most parents. Therefore, parents need to be aware of children’s feelings and teach them about emotions and how to deal with the tough emotional outbursts they experience. This promotes appropriate and good behavior in children and improves their social skills. Teach a child how to handle strong emotions instead of suppressing, avoiding, or withdrawing from the source of the emotion. It is also important for parents to seek the necessary professional help for children who are persistently problematic/are uncontrollable. A child who knows how to control emotions makes parenting easier.

[1] Russell, James A., and Faye A. Paris. “Do children acquire concepts for complex emotions abruptly?.” International Journal of Behavioral Development 17.2 (1994): 349-365.

[2] Harvey, Pat, and Jeanine A. Penzo. Parenting a child who has intense emotions: Dialectical behavior therapy skills to help your child regulate emotional outbursts and aggressive behaviors. New Harbinger Publications, 2009.

[3] Gottman, John. Raising an emotionally intelligent child. Simon and Schuster, 2011.

[4] Haslam, Divna, et al. “Parenting style, child emotion regulation and behavioral problems: The moderating role of cultural values in Australia and Indonesia.” Marriage & Family Review 56.4 (2020): 320-342.

[5] Crandall, AliceAnn, et al. “Maternal emotion regulation and adolescent behaviors: The mediating role of family functioning and parenting.” Journal of youth and adolescence 45.11 (2016): 2321-2335.

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Vivian Perry

Vivian Perry

Mother of 3 kids. Enjoy reading parenting books and studied child care degree. Vivian loves to learn and write about parenting tips and help her kids to grow positively with grit mindset.