How to Talk to a Child Who Is Upset

How to Talk to a Child Who Is Upset

            What do you do when a child is emotionally upset? Young children are often confused and overwhelmed by their own feelings. Some children can become emotionally flooded such that their heart rate increases, their muscles tense, breathing feels more difficult, thinking becomes confused and toxic feelings wash over them. Obviously, this is not the time to reason with a child, even if he is only mildly upset.  Remember the acting out cycle and how easily children’s behavior can accelerate into peak phases if we don’t lower their emotional reactivity. When a child is upset, we have a teachable moment to build emotional competence and prevent challenging behaviors.

            Too often we are also uncomfortable with the child’s strong emotions and we want them to go away. We might say things like, “Oh, relax, there’s nothing to be afraid of.” But to the child who is feeling afraid, this is another way of saying, there is something wrong with you. Such a statement can also be interpreted as “I don’t have time for your problems”.

            Instead, a powerful technique is to acknowledge the child’s feelings (Faber & Mazlish, 1999). You can do this by labeling his emotions, or simply saying “oh”, or “uh huh” or “mmm” which lets the child know you are listening. Often, the child will open up and tell you more about what is bothering him or her. For example, one day Jeremy was crying in the corner of the classroom and his teacher approached him and said, “what’s up, Jeremy?” He replied, “I hate school”. Although his teacher was disturbed by this and tempted to contradict him, she kept her calm and just said, “oh.” After a moment, Jeremy added, “My sister gets to stay home all day, but I have to come here. I hate it.” Jeremy’s mom had had a baby a few months earlier and she was taking a family leave to stay home for the next few months. She said, “You must miss your mom a lot when you come to school.” Notice how she is focused on acknowledging the child’s feelings rather than fixing the problem. Later, when Jeremy is calmer, she will talk to him more about how to cope with his feelings. Right now, she just wants to help him feel understood. And he did. Jeremy leaned over and gave his teacher a hug, took a deep breath and went over to play with the other children.

            Children will also respond well to a fantasy wish when they are upset. Rather than trying to reason with the child, it can sometimes break the negativity by offering to solve the problem in fantasy. You tell the child how much you wish you could change things with a magic wand, or fairy dust, or a magic pencil or potion. For example, first grader Katie was repeatedly complaining that she was hungry and it was distracting her from seatwork. Her teacher said, “Katie, I wish I had a magic clock that could make it be lunch time right now! I’d wind it up and say ‘abracadabra’ and poof – you’d be able to eat right away!” Katie giggled, and said, “that would be great!” She settled down and got back to work, feeling that her complaints had at least been heard and taken seriously.
Finally, when accepting children’s feelings, you might also have to stop their behavior at the same time. For example, Maggie was upset when she came back from recess which was held for about 20 minutes in a poorly supervised, small play yard alongside the school. She pushed Jessica as she stormed into the room, clearly upset about what happened during recess. Her teacher gently stopped her, saying, “Maggie, I can see how angry you are, but I can’t let anyone get hurt. Go over to the Quiet Spot and I’ll be over in a minute so you can tell me about your anger.” Notice how the teacher accepted Maggie’s feelings. There is no point in telling a child she shouldn’t be feeling something – she is already feeling it. Instead, convey the message that all feelings are accepted, but inappropriate behaviors are not. In other words, feelings are powerful and must be addressed, but they are not an excuse to behave in ways that hurt others, ourselves, or our things.
          Acknowledging children’s feelings helps them develop emotional competence, which is an important requisite for being successful in school  – and later in life. It should be one of the important tools in your toolbox for preventing challenging behaviors and creating a positive classroom.

Responding to a Child Who is Upset

1. Put the child’s feelings into words. “You seem frightened by that noise.”

2. Encourage the child to talk by using “Oh” “Mmmm” or “I see” and not evaluating.
3. Use fantasy to help the child feel understood. “I wish I had a magic clock that could make it lunch time right now!”
4. Accept the child’s feelings, even as you stop unacceptable behavior. “You are so mad you really want to hit Danielle, but I can’t let you do that. Let’s sit in the Quiet Spot and you can tell me about being mad.”

Adapted from: