Kids and Emotions: What Do I Say in the Moment?
The words we choose to use with children are incredibly important. When we are teaching a child how to manage emotions, it’s what we say AND how we say it.
Many caregivers are used to certain phrases when a child feels difficult emotions. Think “stop crying”, “no hitting”, “you’re fine”, etc. You might have grown up hearing these. For many, it’s a reflex – it’s just the first thing that comes out.
These words can do more harm than good (but we’ve got an easy solution!). These phrases don’t let the child learn how to process emotions and make good choices.
We’ve put together a quick list of phrase “swaps” you can practice to help your child develop social and emotional skills when they are feeling strong or difficult emotions.
Before we get to the swaps, here’s a golden nugget of knowledge: Emotions are not bad. It is okay to feel emotions – in fact, it’s healthy! A child’s actions and choices can lead to appropriate consequences.
Your emotions are important too. If you are visibly upset, it will be harder to help that child. Take a deep breath before trying these swaps.
- Instead of “Stop crying” → Try “I see that you’re feeling really sad. It’s ok to feel sad. I’m here to help.”
When a child knows that an adult understands how they feel, it can be easier for them to calm down.
- Instead of “Don’t be scared” → Try “I see that you’re feeling scared. It’s okay to feel scared. Is there something I can do to help?”
If there is no immediate danger, this is a chance for a child to feel supported while also listening to their body and emotions.
- Instead of “No hitting! That’s not nice.” → Try “I see you are feeling angry. It’s okay to feel angry. It’s not okay to hit or hurt other people.”
If a child feels angry and needs to express it physically, you can help them find a safe way to do that. Think squeezing or hitting a pillow, or throwing something in an area where it won’t hurt people.
- Instead of “Because I said so” → Try “It’s hard when we have to do things we don’t want to do”, or “I hear you’re upset that I said no. This is not safe, so we can’t do it.”
“Because I said so” can be confusing for a child. It doesn’t explain anything. If you catch yourself saying this, pause and try to explain why simply.
- Instead of “Be careful” → Try – Asking questions (if it’s safe)
If there’s no immediate danger, ask questions. If a child is climbing a tree, ask “do you feel safe?” or “does that branch feel strong enough to hold you?” This helps the child listen to their gut, be aware of themselves and their surroundings, and make good choices.
Avoid saying “but”. When we say something like “It’s okay to feel angry, but you can’t hit,” the word “but” can make a child feel like the first part of the sentence isn’t valid anymore.
Let’s wrap it up!
This change doesn’t happen 100% overnight. Keep practicing. You’ll start to catch yourself saying the first phrases, and then you can adjust. If safety permits, breathe before you respond. See if you can find out more about why they are feeling that big emotion. This takes practice too. Get curious, not furious!