Develop Emotional Regulation Skills
Validate Feelings, Not Tears
You may notice that your child frequently cries over little disappointments as if they were huge problems. She throws a tantrum because she can’t find the purple shoes she “needs” to wear. You bought the “wrong” kind of cereal bar for her school snack. For these little problems, she goes from 0 to 60 — fast. As a result, she doesn’t learn to prioritize big and small issues, doesn’t learn to manage ordinary disappointment and causes herself undue stress, and faces social problems when she melts down publicly.
Elementary school-age children occasionally get disappointed when something doesn’t go their way. Young children can even get their heart set on small things because they loom large in a child’s world; they may then feel crushed when things don’t work out. But when your child chronically melts down over small letdowns or setbacks — when little deals are all big deals — then it could indicate your child is struggling to develop emotional regulation skills.
Emotional regulation is one of our executive functions: the set of skills that let us effectively execute daily tasks.
Solution: Validate disappointment.
Your child’s tears over small stuff is related to emotional control. The tears themselves should be thought of as neutral — there’s nothing either good or bad about them. Verbally acknowledge your child’s sadness or disappointment, but you don’t have to do anything. The parent doesn’t need to “fix” the problem by “giving in." You want to avoid a pattern where the parent changes their behavior because of crying.
Your child can learn a response other than, or in addition to, crying. Validate her feelings, but remove the attention from crying. Focus instead on redirecting her behavior towards the goal, and ignore additional outbursts. Lavish praise for attempting or accomplishing the goal.
Don’t do this: Say, “I’ll go to the store and buy the cereal bars you want,” and ignore her upset feelings.
Try this instead: Say, “I’m sorry I didn’t buy the cereal bars you want and that you’re upset. You’ll have to find something in the pantry that works until the next time I go shopping.”
If your child chooses another snack — even with some crying or whining — that’s success. So praise the action. Say, “I can tell that was hard for you, but I’m proud that you found something else you like.” Focus on the end goal and give attention to that, not the tears.
Remember: Your child’s intense emotional reaction to a little disappointment isn’t necessarily tied to sadness; and it’s not a measure of her level of disappointment about the situation.
It is perfectly normal for children to experience some degree of difficulty and frustration as they learn to execute new tasks. Toddlers can tantrum, school-aged children can yell and argue, and teenagers can ignore instructions. When deciding if executive function weaknesses require intervention, ask yourself: “How frequently is this occurring? How intense is the experience/significant the impact?” If your answer to these questions is “too much,” “too often,” “I don’t know what to do to change this,” or “it’s only getting worse,” you may benefit from a face-to-face conversation to help problem-solve your concern. Effective problem solving will help you clearly identify the problem, goal, steps it will take to achieve your goal, possible barriers, and available supports.