When your kid is in full Ron Burgundy-style “I’m in a glass case of emotion” mode, it’s easy to match their level of anxiety—thanks to the crying, the screaming, the jumble of words made unintelligible because of the crying and screaming…
“For a lot of parents, when they see the meltdown, it’s easy for them to notice the behavior: the falling out, the crying, the emotion,” says Brandy Wells, licensed independent social worker specializing in childhood mental health and the creator of My Motherhood Magic. “But usually underneath all of that is a need that needs to be met.”
Being in tune with your child’s needs requires a lot of patience and communication. Yet in an attempt to calm your child as quickly as possible, you might focus on the behavior, and not whatever’s causing it.
“Parents ask their children: What’s wrong with you?” says Jacob Kountz, a family therapist in Bakersfield, California. “A more helpful question would be: ‘Help me understand what happened.’ This type of curious language primes children that they aren’t being accused of something, it stays away from unhelpful language such as wrong, and it allows children to share their thoughts and feelings.”
Raising thoughtful and emotionally intelligent children starts with teaching them how to share their thoughts and feelings.
The following phrases can help you teach your kids how to express themselves—and help prevent meltdowns.
1. “I can see that you are upset. You are allowed to feel that way. I’m here when you’re ready to talk.”
Raena Boston, a mom of two boys ages two and four, says this phrase helps her affirm her sons’ feelings. “It reminds me that I don’t have to rush them through their feelings,” she explains.
Why it works: Letting your child know that you see them—that it’s okay to have feelings and that you’re there for them—helps them feel safe. And having that safety gets them out of melting down and into communicating.
2. “I would feel [insert emotion] if that happened to me, too.”
“Phrases like ‘That does sounds upsetting’ or ‘I would feel that way too,’ let children know that it makes sense for them to feel that way and it’s not bad to have feelings,” says Linda Kudla, a licensed clinical psychologist in New York and Massachusetts with expertise in children and adolescents.
Why it works: “When kids know that someone isn’t going to tell them to feel differently or that their feelings are wrong, they’ll seek out that kind of comfort more often,” Kudla explains.
3. “I see that you had a hard time with [x], what can we do to make it easier next time?”
This phrase has worked wonders for Stepha LaFond, a New York City-based mom coach and mother of two. “My 5-year-old likes to have autonomy,” she explains. So when her daughter gets frustrated, LaFond encourages her to come up with solutions. “She lights up thinking about solutions and is excited to follow through with it,” LaFond says.
Why it works: Encouraging kids to come up with their own strategies for dealing with frustration is part of a strategy that social worker and mom of three Brandy Wells calls FLIP IT: Identify the feeling (that’s the F), then if needed, set an appropriate limit for how to express the feeling (for example, “it’s okay to cry, but we don’t hit”). I stands for inquiry, encouraging kids to come up with solutions and strategies of their own. “And then P is prompting—helping them problem-solve,” Wells explains. “You want them to practice asking, ‘What do I need to do?’ And if they’re not able to do that, then you are able to give them that assistance.”
Thanks to this practice, Wells’s daughter has learned that drinking water helps her calm down. “So when she has a meltdown, she’s really good about saying, ‘I just need my drink of water,’ Wells says.
4. “Your words help me understand you better.”
You know those meltdowns that are more tears than words? Samareua Pope, a pre-med student and mom of one, uses this phrase to help her daughter use her words. This phrase helps remind older children who have grown past the preverbal toddler years that words can be a powerful way to release their feelings—and to get help if they need it.
“I make sure to reassure her that crying is okay, but I simply can’t assist if I don’t know what’s going on,” Pope explains. “It’s interesting to see how quickly my daughter will switch gears from crying to speaking. I’ve found that speaking with her calmly and asking her to express herself has not only helped her to grow emotionally, but her vocabulary has enhanced as well. I’ll encourage her to make a complete sentence. It works wonders and she feels much better afterwards.”
Why it works: Pope’s daughter knows she has the power to make herself heard and understood through her words. Imagine teaching that powerful, empowering lesson to your kiddo!
5. “It seems like you’re having a hard time finding the words to explain what you’re feeling. Is there another way that you can show me what’s going on?”
“My son has big feelings and can be what most people perceive as sensitive,” says dance and movement psychotherapist Jennifer Sterling. “It’s often difficult for him to find his words right away, so asking him to draw something or use colors that represent how he’s feeling, or inviting him to move with me in ways that help him explore what he might be feeling is something we use regularly.”
Why it works: Kids don’t always have to “use their words” to be understood, and listening isn’t the only tool parents have to understand their children’s needs. “Creative expression has been an incredible tool for us,” says Sterling.
6. “I’m your mother, but I don’t live in your body. What does it feel like? What’s your brain feeling?”
Feelings don’t happen in a vacuum—they live in our bodies. Yetunde Rubinstein uses this phrase to help her daughters (ages 10 and 12) realize the power of self-awareness. “They know what hurts, what feels off, even if they can’t explain why,” Rubinstein says.
Camille Trummer, a fellow mom of two, guides her 5-year-old daughter to use the sentence structure “My heart feels [blank]. My body feels [blank]” with the same intention.
Why it works: This phrase can help teach your children about the mind and body connection, and can also help you as a parent to separate the behavior from the child—they’re not being bad, they’re trying to communicate about what feels bad.
“When your child bangs his fist on the table, you have the urge to correct him, but you know that’s not really going to fix the problem,” says Tamar Chansky, a child psychologist and founder of the Children’s and Adult Center for OCD and Anxiety in Pennsylvania. “Instead of discipline, say, ‘Your body is saying something with those fists, what is it saying? Can you ask them?'”
7. “What color are you right now?”
Assigning feelings to colors is done in cartoons (hello, Inside Out!), marketing, and also as a common therapeutic strategy for children. “Green can be calm and ready to learn, yellow means starting to lose control, red means out of control, and blue would be tired or low energy,” explains Amy Rollo, a psychotherapist and founder of Heights Family Counseling in Houston, Texas. “No zone is labeled as good or bad, but as expected or unexpected.”
You can also work with your child to develop a color system that’s unique to them, assigning colors to emotions such as sadness, excitement, fear, anger, and shame.
Then add in body awareness by asking your kiddo where they feel those emotions on their bodies, suggests Sarvenaz Sepehri, a California-based licensed clinical psychologist. “For example: fear might show up in [the] stomach when one gets butterflies in their tummy, or happiness might get expressed by how fast one’s heart beats,” she says.
Why it works: “Children begin to make the mind-body connection, as well as learn appropriate coping skills,” Rollo says.
8. “Let’s take a deep breath. Look in the mirror, wipe your face and straighten your clothes.”
“I know that sometimes even as an adult I need a moment alone to pull myself together,” says pre-med mom Samareua Pope. “I want to encourage my daughter to be fearless and to face things head on, which is why I implement the looking-in-the-mirror portion of this phrase. This works the best because nine times out of 10 she comes back with a dry face and an eager attitude to work through what may have just been happening.”
Why it works: This phrase is like a reset button for kids, teaching them how to center themselves and move past the meltdown.
Deep breathing is a coping mechanism that works across all age groups—taking a deep breath in and a long exhale helps with getting grounded. A sweet way to teach your child how to do this is by saying, “Smell the flowers, blow out the candles.”
9. “I’m going to go fishing…tell me if I caught anything!”
“If you have a child who is reluctant to say anything about feelings, you can say, ‘I’m going to go fishing. I’m going to name something that someone might be feeling now, and you tell me if I caught anything,'” says child psychologist Tamar Chansky. “The parent can mime casting a fishing line and offer a feeling—’I’m mad because I keep missing the net when I try to shoot a basket’—then say, ‘Did I catch anything?’ If not, try another feeling,” she says.
Why it works: “Eventually parents ‘catch’ the right feeling their child has,” Chansky says, “or sometimes, just having the conversation helps kids figure out what they need. At the very least they appreciate your efforts at valuing their feelings and trying to help them express them.”
None of these phrases and strategies are one-time fixes, but they can all be part of an ongoing conversation between you and your kids. Give your kids the space to provide answers and solutions themselves, and they’ll grow to understand how to express their feelings and emotions—even the tough ones.