COVID Parenting Pep Talk: Be With Your Child’s Big Feelings

About this resource
Reviewed: 2020

For many of us, changes in routine and lack of choices have brought on feelings of sadness, anger, and frustration. Though we may be experiencing these difficult emotions, as adults we can understand that changes to our daily routines are to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

The changes are confusing for young children because they are concrete thinkers. They rely on what they can see, feel, and experience to understand the world. Young children have a more limited understanding of the pandemic situation, so imagine how confusing it is to them that their daily routines have been totally changed by a virus they cannot see.

Grief, sadness, anger, and frustration are big feelings for young children to manage. These feelings may be strong and sudden, and that can be scary for them. Young children are learning to manage their emotions and may not know how to express these big feelings with words. They may act out in ways adults find challenging, such as having a tantrum, crying, hitting, or hiding.

When they engage in the behaviors that adults find challenging, they are saying, “I need you to be with me and help me figure out what these feelings mean!” The challenging behaviors get caregiver attention and bring caregivers nearer. However, as caregivers, we can watch for more subtle signs of big feelings and take actions to prevent big feelings from being expressed in unsafe ways.

Like many of you, I have been home with a young child during the COVID-19 pandemic. In previous pep talks in this series, I talked about how I have realized that refocusing on positive guidance and making time for connection have helped our family bring more peace to our new daily routines. However, I still find myself riding the emotional roller coaster when big feelings surface.

Take this example with my 5-year-old son. We took a walk in a park near our home. We had driven past the grocery store on our way. As we were playing in the clover, my son started to cry. He told me it had been a very long time since he had been to the grocery store and had a free cookie from the bakery. My first thought was, “it’s just a cookie and you’ve had plenty of cookies during our time at home!” However, reminding him of the cookie he had eaten earlier just seemed to make him more upset. In that moment I realized that I needed to be an “emotion coach” rather than fix the cookie problem.

Being an “emotion coach” means being side by side with children and with them in their big feelings. With my son, this meant giving him a big hug when he was so sad about not getting a free cookie at the bakery, listening to his words, and assuring him that his sadness was real. Though it seemed like a small thing, being able to choose a cookie was a big deal to him.

As I listened to his sadness, I realized it was more than a cookie. He told me how much he wanted to go to the store to help push the cart and choose groceries with his dad. Eventually we came up with a plan to bake our own cookies. Being able to choose what kind of cookie to bake gave him a sense of power in the situation.  

I know my son needed me to be with his big feeling of sadness more than he needed a batch of cookies to replace a free one from the bakery. Children’s sadness and anger is just as real as the grief and anger that adults are experiencing when they work through their feelings of frustration at not being able to travel, see friends and family, or do other activities.

I’ve tried to remember to be with my son and coach him through big feelings over the past few months since the big cookie cry. How do I know we’re making progress even though it seems as if we’re on an emotional roller coaster every day? One day, my son finished the morning snack I had given him, and he wanted another one. I told him he would have to wait until lunch, and my “no” set off an epic tantrum. Eventually he calmed down and said, “Daddy not playing robots with me and you not making me more toast and giving me corn chips makes me so mad. So mad I am feeling like biting people.”

I thanked him for not biting me and for telling me his feelings, but I stuck to my “no” and said I would give him more in a half hour when I finished preparing lunch. He was still mad for a bit, and I told him I was so proud he could express himself with words. I hope that as you coach the young children you love, you also will have moments to celebrate their growing abilities during these trying times.

Rebecca Swartz
rswartz@illinois.edu

Dr. Rebecca Swartz, an early learning specialist for IEL, completed her doctorate in human development and family studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Rebecca’s research and outreach work focuses on infant-toddler care, home-based child care, and the social-emotional development of young children. Her goal is to help parents and early educators by providing evidence-based resources on child development and early learning.
Biography current as of 10/2019