Helping Children with Big Feelings

Big feelings such as frustration or being upset can lead to strong reactions in adults and children. For children who have little control over their environment, these feelings can occur for reasons adults see as inconsequential or silly. Regardless of what causes a meltdown, teaching, modeling, and supporting them to calm down in that big feelings moment will help them learn a valuable life skill. Children will be faced with things that make them feel upset or mad many times in their lives. Teaching these skills early promotes resilience in the face of difficult situations.

“Joey stole my bear,” “I want a cookie,” or “I don’t want to go to bed” are examples of what you might hear right before your child has a meltdown. Kicking, screaming, crying, refusing to move, these are indications that a child may need support to calm down and are a clue that your child is not in a place where they can learn a new skill. But how do you know when is a good time to teach strategies to calm down and when is a good time to support your child through their big feelings? Below we’ve outlined steps on how to help your child learn and practice calming down so that when those meltdowns happen, both you and your child will know what to do.

Strategies to Support Your Child in Calming Down

  1. Teach and practice when a child is calm. Calm-down  strategies need to be taught before a child is upset, not while a child is upset. You can pick three or four strategies to practice with your child that feel right for your family. Some examples of calm-down strategies are taking deep breaths, taking a break, hugging a stuffed animal, and listening to music. If you’re not sure what strategies to teach your child, we recommend going to the National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations and reading Tucker Turtle Takes Time to Tuck and Think at Home with your child. For example, the bedtime routine can be difficult. Before bedtime review your child’s bedtime routine and the calm-down choices from the Tucker Turtle story. Have your child practice deep breaths at the dinner table or during bath time.
  2. Model how you want children to behave if they’re angry or upset when you’re feeling mad.Modeling calm-down strategies helps children understand what you want them to do when they have big feelings. For example, if the kids are driving you crazy at bedtime, say “I’m taking a break” and walk away. Come back when you’re calm and say “I feel better now that I’ve calmed down. Let’s try bedtime again.” Here’s a resource for calming yourself down during difficult moments.
  3. Help your child when they are feeling upset. These are things to try when faced with a child melting down. Try this at home:
    • Take a few deep breaths to remain calm. This will help you remain responsive to your child’s needs in a difficult moment.
    • Model for your child what they can do (not telling them what to do). Try saying, “Take deep breaths like this [inhale]” to show your child something they can do in that moment. Another example would be to hug a stuffed animal and say, “You can hug a lovey like this to calm down.”
    • Offer visual choices without saying anything. Show pictures of deep breathing, hugging a stuffed animal, and taking a break. The child can point to which one they want to try. If they don’t choose one, select one to model or give them some space and try again in three minutes.
  4. Support your child’s future use of calm-down strategies. These are things you can do after your child has calmed down. Reflecting on their feelings can help them be more prepared to handle strong feelings in the future. Try this at home:
    • Describe what the child did to calm down. Try saying,“You were sad that it was bedtime, so you cuddled your lovey and listened to music. Now your body is calm and you’re resting so nicely.”
    • Help the child reflect about how they feel now that they’re calm. Try asking, “How do you feel now?”
    • Offer to help solve the problem. Try saying, “Now that you’re calm, do you want to read a book or listen to music while you rest?” 
    • Create a space for your child to calm down. Creating a space specifically for your child to go when they are overwhelmed can support their ability to learn to regulate independently.

It’s natural for children and adults to have big feelings. Try these steps to support your child to develop healthy calm-down strategies and decrease your stress when you’re faced with an upset child. If you’re not sure what calm-down strategies to teach, you can go to www.challengingbehavior.org for free, printable resources to use in your home.

Abby Taylor Abby Taylor

Abby Taylor works as a doctoral student studying early childhood special education at Vanderbilt University. She has been supporting teachers and childcare programs in the Nashville area in implementing the Pyramid Model on several IES-funded projects since 2016. Abby is passionate about supporting teacher’s promotion of children’s social-emotional development.
(Biography current as of 2021)

Kate Nuhring Kate Nuhring

Kate Nuhring is a doctoral student studying early childhood special education at Vanderbilt University. She received her master’s degree in early childhood special education at Vanderbilt University in 2020 after spending nearly a decade as a Head Start teacher and administrator. She is passionate about working with teachers to guide their support of young children who exhibit challenging behaviors.
(Biography current as of 2021)

About this Resource

Setting(s) for which the article is intended:
  • Home

Intended audience(s):
  • Parents / Family

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
  • Preschoolers (Age 3 Through Age 5)

Revised: 2021