Helping Little Ones Express Big Emotions

I used to be one of those moms. I used to think I knew why kids did what they did. Especially preschool-aged children who have a fit.

But now I know better. Kids are people too. They feel. They are acting up because they still need to learn how to control the immense emotions that they feel. Most of the time, children are not acting up to get attention.

When my child screams, when my child cries, when my child refuses to do something I’m begging her to do, there is a reason. Just like an adult has his or her own preferences, my preschooler too knows what she wants. The difference is that my preschool does not know how to control the intense emotions that come over her. She need our nurturing love and help, not our judgement.

Helping little ones express big emotions is not easy, but helping them now helps them avoid a lot of frustration later in life.  It is a skill to be learned.

Helping a little one through a big emotion takes love and acknowledging of the strong feelings. Help her put words to the frustration.

Our Need to Assign Meaning

As adults, we try to figure out what’s going on with little ones. We assign meaning to their outbursts.

She’s just looking for attention.

She’s spoiled.

She’s got a “redhead’s temper.”

I’ve heard all of these. On one particular day when Strawberry was being a bit mean, one mom even explained that she does not have that problem with her little one because she is always firm with her. Her daughter knows she cannot act out because Mom trained her young.

I will say that my first born was a child like that.

I also feel I must admit that I feel embarrassed by my second child’s behavior sometimes. I know she’s full of spunk, sometimes positive and sometimes mean and negative. But I also know that spunk is a good thing when one learns to control it. I honestly feel badly that I feel embarrassed. As the rest of this post shows, I believe helping little ones learn to control their big emotions is an essential and completely normal part of growing up.

Also, a disclaimer: I’m not a medical professional. All opinions are my own from years of parenting. Here are some books I’ve also loved (links to my book reviews on my blog) that have influenced my views as I have navigated parenting.

Learning to Communicate

Babies can only cry and scream. They are still looking for the words that will help them express themselves. We don’t look at a sad, crying baby and say “oh, she’s just crying for attention.” The sad baby does not care about the attention she is attracting (although she’ll quickly learn that this is a way to communicate). Rather, she is crying because she does not know how else to express the deep sadness or pain she feels. Maybe she is sad because she has a sore bum. Maybe her tummy is empty. Maybe she is sad and disappointed that Mommy did not pick her up and Aunt Claire did. The end result is, yes, attention. But she does not cry for that reason. Something else is probably going on.

When a preschooler bursts into tears, often she too is doing so because she does not know how else to express the deep sadness that is overwhelming her. Maybe she is sad because I gave her the green cup instead of the red cup. Maybe she is sad because her body aches with exhaustion and she really wants to do play. Maybe she is sad because she knows the dimming light outside means bedtime is coming soon. Maybe she cries because she thought of a story she read last week. Maybe she is sad because she imagined walking down the stairs instead of going down the elevator. (And I just pulled her onto the elevator.)

It’s true, a preschooler has words that she could use instead of crying. She could say, “Could I please have the red cup? I love it so much more than the green cup!” She could say, “I feel sad now because I see the sun going down and I know that means I’ll have to go to sleep soon.” But preschool children are still learning language. Many of the explanations require figuring out cause and effect. I feel sad because…

It’s not so easy to communicate when intense emotion overwhelms. Little children are still figuring out how to communicate. Emotions make it that much harder.

It’s true that sometimes kids can learn that yelling and screaming and attracting attention is a way to get what they want. They are trained to act up for attention. For preschoolers, however, I believe that more often than not, the child is expressing overwhelming feelings and they need our help. We shouldn’t belittle them or their emotions. They are very real, even if to us, it seems like not a big deal.

As parents, we can help by putting words to their outbursts. Sometimes the learning must wait until the intense emotions are less (you cannot reason with an upset child in any way!). When the outburst is happening, though, we acknowledge their feelings and give them love.

Intensity and Frustration

Intensity is something I deal with on a daily basis with my dear preschooler. She is excited and happy to the extreme. She is also sad to the extreme. When she feels something, she feels it to the extreme. And she is always feeling something.

When we are waiting for something (a table at a restaurant, a prescription at the pharmacy window), sometimes she gets so excited, her impatience overflows.

“When is it our turn? I’m bored! I can’t wait any longer!” Her words are whining, but for her, she trying so hard to keep herself in check. No, she’s not spoiled. She’s intense.

I remember one day when I finally let go of my “expectations” and I saw her as she is. I finally changed my paradigm from the “She’s doing it for attention” to the “she’s overwhelmed” model in my mind.

We were at the grocery store with a full basket of already-purchased groceries, waiting for a prescription to be filled. My daughter was at least 2, maybe recently turned 3. She was crying and screaming. I could not understand her few words but I realized that my dear girl was exhausted from being good. She wanted to go home. She could not keep it in any more.

I cannot remember if she was begging for some trinket or if she was simply sad. Her screams were piercing. They echoed through the entire store. Other store patrons turned and stared. Some gave me looks.

I did not care. She was overwhelmed. I wrapped her in my arms and held her close. Suddenly I knew that no matter what anyone else thought about my tantruming child, I knew. She was not seeking attention or trying to be naughty or bad. She was simply overwhelmed. She could not stop, and she needed love, not scolding.

Spoiling a Child … with Love

So, in answer to the well-meaning question, No, my daughter does not act up to get attention. If she is acting contrary to societal accepted norms, it’s because she’s reached a limit in some way. Her happiness, sadness, frustration, or disappointment has reached a level that at that moment she cannot control it.

I am told that, as a child, I had frequent tantrums. Actually, I remember being told that, being a redhead, I had a “redhead’s temper.” It took far too long for me to come to understand that my temper is no different than anyone else’s temper. I simply did not learn, at a young age, to control the intensity of emotions.

The good news is we can always learn to improve ourselves. I am so grateful that with my little fireball of energy, I can be the one that is there for her as I help her learn and give her the words to communicate. She does not act out for attention. She is simply a preschooler learning how to live.

I cannot speak for every parent, because our kids are all different, and I cannot speak for all preschoolers, as I am no longer a preschooler myself. But I know that preschoolers are people too. If we acknowledge their intense feelings and help them find better ways to express them, they will be wrapped in love through their childhood days as they improve themselves. Isn’t that what we all want?

No, her crying is not for attention. It’s because she is a person feeling something real.


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