Helping children process and heal from strong emotions

My daughter, who’s on the verge of turning 3, recently had a brief scary moment where she couldn’t find me at the playground. Though it was less than a minute before she spotted me again, for a child that young, that’s a long time and it can really leave an impression.

As I scooped her up into my arms, she started to cry and said, “I was looking for you everywhere. I couldn’t find you!” In the moment, I empathized with her sadness and acknowledged that it had been really scary for her. I held her for a while and then suggested we ride the swings, which is her favorite thing to do at the park.

After this incident, occasionally, she’s wanted to talk about what had happened. Sometimes when we mention that playground, she’ll talk about “one time I didn’t know where you were,” or when we’re snuggling at bedtime, she’ll suddenly start reminiscing about it and going over the details of it again. She also occasionally replays other upsetting moments — like when she was running outside her brother’s school and skinned her knee.

Often parents try to stop their child from reliving a sad or scary moment, worrying that it will only upset them more. Since the moment has passed, it could seem like nothing good can come from being sad over it again. In reality, many children need to talk about upsetting moments multiple times as they work to process the intense emotions they felt. While it may seem counterproductive, this helps them to work through it.

Trying to stop a child from discussing it again can actually cause them to stuff the emotions inside and never really resolve their pain. Talking about it can help them to feel better.

When my daughter brings it up now, after I acknowledge her feelings again, I also remind her, “But then you found me and I hugged you. Then, I pushed you on the swings.” I want to make sure she remembers how I comforted her afterwards and that we turned it into an opportunity to connect. This way, it doesn’t seem quite as upsetting, and it helps to turn it into more of a positive memory than one that makes her sad. I hope that in this way I’m helping her to process her emotions and to show that I’m there to support her through them.


Inspired to read more about children and strong emotions?

Identifying emotions

Creating space to “hold” your child’s

Helping children through divorce

Stay patient while teaching toddlers how to handle strong emotions


Tantrums are opportunities to connect

Riders on the Tantrum Storm (Part 1)

Riders on the Tantrum Storm (Part 2)

Editor’s Pick: Emotional abuse, a dark form of children’s maltreatment

How little we really know about the topic of shame

Healthy Fear and Careful Responses

We have arrived home again. I can’t believe the difference it has made. Allow me to give a little background information.

My son has traveled for 8 of the 15 months of his life. We have just recently come back from a 3 week trip. My community travels very often, the trips anywhere from several days to several months in length. We are a performing arts team, a work crew and an extended family (which includes family +).

My son is constantly surrounded by close people that he knows and trusts. He is not a particularly social child. Even though he is chatting and usually fairly smiley, the smile and conversation are not an invitation to play!

Our most recent trip, the one we just returned to home base from, was to Kansas and then a couple of weeks in Sioux Falls SD for a music festival. My boy is very busy and kept me chasing him all day, every day, with the exception of nap time! Thank goodness for my community at these times as people are happy to give me short breaks when necessary; it sometimes saves my sanity. We had many people in and out of our camp during these couple of weeks, old and new friends. Of course who can resist the crazy smile, dirty hands and face, tousled blond hair and the hearty laugh of a toddler?

When my son is approached by someone he does not know he is shy and hides behind whoever is close to him that he knows well. If the subject is pushed he starts to cry. Sometimes hysterically. I was told many times this week by, I am sure, well-meaning people that he “needs to get over it” or “needs to get out more” (which is an amusing statement considering how we live). I, on the other hand, am not concerned. I am actually happy under our unique circumstances that my son does not go to complete strangers. I do not have to worry that he will be overly friendly or that I will have to warn him about people he does not know. On the other hand I do not want him to be afraid of people, especially friends, I have to calmly reassure him without pressuring him to “get to know” someone. To him it is instinctual to steer clear of people he does not know. It is a healthy fear.

Now, on the other hand I have no idea what happened in the self preservation section of my son’s brain because “healthy fear” did not seem to come installed there. While on this last trip we spent a good amount of time on concrete which those of us who have small children know is not an ideal situation for a toddler. There were also a pair of concrete stairs leading down to our camp, a completely fascinating item for my little guy. The most common response from my son to these falls? “Ops.” That’s it. Now in this area I have had to carefully contain myself. I have to measure my response to these events and wait on how my child is responding to the event before I do. If it is as “ops” situation I have to swallow my initial run and cuddle response and allow him to continue his play, lending him a reassuring smile. I have to put my own reactions and emotions to the situation aside and learn from my son how he needs me to respond.

Sometimes it is necessary for me to take action, then it is comfort and cuddle time and I am rewarded for the newly acquired stress-moment grey hairs  by chubby little arms around my neck and his newest response, sopping wet baby lip kisses that he reserves, just for mom.

All in all I am happy to be off the concrete and we are both happy to be surrounded by those we know and love. We are happy to be home.