Oh, the wonder of the preschool years— that happy time when your child is finally carrying on clearer conversations and learning how to socialize. This period is also a time of transition as children increase in their cognitive abilities and become more independent. Human development theorist Erik Erikson characterized the age group between three to five years as a time when children learn to take initiative in their own lives as social beings. However, children don’t always have the skills necessary to regulate themselves well or navigate new situations.
In fact, early childhood can be the perfect recipe for the perfect storm: having big emotions and not yet having the skillset to manage them. Parents then face the challenge of guiding their children through different personal and social situations. Fights over a specific toy, clinginess when being dropped off at daycare, or meltdowns at the drop of a hat— these can be hard for both parents and children.
When the wind gusts in, the rain pours down, and the lightning crashes overhead, children themselves can become overwhelmed and frightened by the feelings that begin to flood through them. Navigating a child’s emotional storms can be difficult for parents too— and the suddenness and intensity of the moment may catch them off guard.
Here are a few suggestions for how parents can help preschool children prepare for, weather through, and clean up these messy emotional storms.
Preparing For the Storm
When a hurricane is predicted to make landfall, people board up their windows, stock up on food, and place sandbags around their doors. However, how do you fortify against your child’s emotional storms when their feelings look more like flash floods without a weather expert to provide an advanced warning? One way to defend against these storms is to take initiative and enlist your child as an ally, like how you might have them fetch extra batteries from the kitchen for when the power goes out.
First, recognize that these storms are usually signals that something isn’t quite right in your child’s world. Your child may not have the language needed to express what’s wrong, or they may be so flooded with emotions that they can’t communicate well. They may be hungry, tired, overstimulated, or unhappy with the outcome of a certain situation. As a parent, you can be alerted to the warning signs of a brewing storm and help your child become aware as well. For example, you might say, “I know you are hungry, but if we sing your favorite song a few times, we will be home, and you can help me make tacos.” Acknowledge the feeling, help your child recognize it and provide a coping tool to fend off the approaching storm before it hits.
If your child tends to have grocery store meltdowns when they don’t get a treat, prepare them for the errand by reading them the grocery list and then strictly follow it. Ask them to help you find all the listed items, so they stay focused on the task at hand. If your child becomes irritable after screen-time, let them know beforehand that they can only watch one show, but that you’ve planned a fun activity for afterwards. If they are domineering when playing with friends, role play sharing or moving on if their friend wants to play alone. While you can’t fend off all storms, you can help your child see that some storms can be redirected and train them to recognize that you are a source of help— not the enemy— in times of emotional flooding.
Weathering the Storm
While preparation can prevent some outbursts, it can’t stop every storm. Big emotions in little bodies can lead to behaviors like screaming, hitting, or throwing. Before behavior escalates, stop the dangerous behavior, move your child to a safe space, and explain why they are going there. Physically correcting behavior is often necessary to protect your child.
When these storms happen at home, try to remove your child to a room with less stimuli, so they can calm down in a safe, quiet environment. If you are in public during a meltdown, like the bank or the mall, the car or another secluded location might be your best option. Remind your child clearly that their behavior is not helping them get what they want. Coach them as they try to regain control and be patient as this emotional storm blows through. Becoming frustrated and embarrassed by your child’s loud emotions is normal but becoming flooded with emotion yourself may only serve to keep the storm swirling. Your ability to remain calm models the kind of emotional restraint you hope to teach your child.
As your children begin to recognize their own “out-of-sorts” moments, you might enlist their aid in creating a corner in your homemade specifically for your child to rest and recover. Instead of a traditional “time-out” corner, make that space the “calm-down” corner. For example, put a big cardboard box there and fill it with pillows. Let your child color, play soft music, rest, or eat a snack. Give your child a safe space to collect themselves and address their own needs.
Sometimes shy children may prefer to stay in their calm-down corner. While being able to assess their own emotions and go to their calm-down spot on their own is a good development, make sure this space doesn’t lose its power by becoming a casual play spot. If your shy child is reluctant to leave the corner, suggest that they play in their room if they want to be alone.
Cleaning Up After the Storm
Once the storm has passed, good teaching moments can follow. You can help your children understand their own emotions and reactions by assessing the emotion behind the behavior. The middle of an emotional breakdown may not be an effective time to lecture on behavior, so after they’ve calmed down, ask them what the emotions felt like in their bodies. Help them identify the specific feelings: sad, angry, tired, embarrassed, etc. Find the thought that prompted the outburst: “He took the toy I wanted, you wouldn’t buy me a snack, I don’t want to play with her,” etc. These discussions can help your children make connections and prepare to act better when similar situations and feelings arise. Behavioral correction without emotional conversations leaves children without resources to tackle their feelings.
After you help your children identify their feelings and triggers, you can create a new plan with them. Let your children know which behaviors are acceptable and which are not. For example, if your child feels angry again, tell them to go to their calm-down corner instead of hitting. Be explicit in explaining that unacceptable behaviors will lead to consequences and inform them of the privileges they may lose. In fact, you can even let your children brainstorm with you on what consequences are appropriate, thus giving them guided practice in regulating themselves and helping them realize that discipline is justified rather than arbitrary. Try to assess if their behavior is influenced by overwhelming emotions or if they’re intentionally being naughty. You can then correct or put consequences into place accordingly.
Keeping the dialogue open and helping your children learn how to emotionally regulate takes time and effort, but with practice, you and your child can both become better weather forecasters who are in tune with emotional situations and ways to handle them effectively. Consistency in recognizing cloud patterns and acting accordingly will help your child develop the skills they need to pick out the patterns on their own. Weathering these emotional storms by following these steps may eventually clear up the storms and lead to calmer, sunnier skies.