Big Feelings — Helping Kids Navigate Their Emotions

As children’s brains are developing, they may not be able to handle their emotions effectively without the assistance of parents. Parents can serve as emotional coach to help children develop the intelligence to recognize emotion, identify and name emotion and to manage those emotions in a way that is adaptive and to feel empathy for others. Listen in as Children’s Nebraska behavioral health specialist, Dr. Reo Newring, discusses helping children navigate their emotions.

Topic Breakdown

1:21 – Helping Children Navigate their Emotions
02:43 – Modeling Appropriate Behavior for Children
03:40 – Goal of the Interaction
04:57 – Dealing with Emotions
05:43 – Getting Kids to Open Up
08:24 – Parenting an Emotional Child
10:02 – Seeking Professional Help


Gina Melton: Well normally I don’t start this podcast with a statistic, but I just thought this was really interesting: 56% of parents, like us, believe that kids have the impulse control to resist the desire to do something forbidden before age 3. But believe it or not, self-control in kids actually develops between 3 ½ and 4 years old, which explains a lot of the toddler years, for sure.

Maybe your child has trouble or a hard time regulating their emotions or maybe they’ve been having meltdowns every hour for random issues and over something kind of trivial. Well, today we have an expert here to talk to us about all of this because, obviously, there’s no parenting book. Darn it.

Hi, I’m Gina Melton with the Just Kids Health Podcast from Children’s Nebraska. Join me as I talk with the region’s pediatric experts about everything related to our kids’ health — from things like medical issues to mental health — all to keep our kids healthy, safe, and strong. So, just sit back — whether you’re working out, you’re walking, you’re just hanging out — and be the great parent that you are.

And today we welcome Dr. Newring to discuss how parents can help navigate their emotions. Good to see you.

Dr. Reo Newring: Hi, thank you.

Helping Children Navigate their Emotions

Gina: You know, I have teenagers. So, we’re doing a lot of this emotion-based thing right now. But what I really wanna ask you is, can children control their emotions?

Dr. Newring: The answer is it depends. It depends on how old they are, it depends on how much their brains have evolved or grown. So at infancy, they cannot control them at all. They’re just reacting — and into the toddler years, too. They start to become aware of — it’s called “social referencing” — they start to become aware of what other people around them are doing with their emotions. And sort of gauging their reactions against the people around them.

And then they start learning, you know, a little more — into like preschool, maybe into school years. They start learning emotional display rules, which is how, what we can show of our emotions. How we can demonstrate that we are feeling what we are feeling. You know, “It’s okay to do some things. It’s not okay to do other things. You can cry and have a temper tantrum maybe at home, but probably not at school.” That kind of thing.

Gina: It’s like me at work. I can’t have a temper tantrum at work but I can at home.

Dr. Newring: Probably. You probably could but you’d have to modulate your behavior.

Modeling Appropriate Behavior for Children

Gina: That’s very true. That’s very true. So, it sounds to me like us parents have a lot to do with being able to communicate, talk to our kids about their emotions. Is that true?

Dr. Newring: Absolutely. I mean, we’re the first point of reference for kids. We’re the ones that they react off of. We’re the ones that they watch.

Gina: Darn it.

Dr. Newring: Right? There is so much modeling that we do without even thinking about it. I mean if you think about like — when you get frustrated with a kid because they didn’t take out the trash and you’ve asked them three times and you’re raising your voice, right? But if they raise their voice to you, that wouldn’t be appropriate.

Gina: True.

Dr. Newring: So, what are you modeling for them? That’s the number one point that I really wanna get across.

Gina: I’m gonna have to remember that.

Dr. Newring: Yup.

Gina: I just dealt with that trash thing the other day with my teenager and I said, “Parker, I’ve asked you to take this out!” You know, it’s hard not to get — get to that point but I guess we are really modeling for our kids.

Goal of the Interaction

Dr. Newring: We are. So you feel frustrated and you have to do the whole, “stop, breathe” thing. What is — what is my goal in this interaction? And that’s another thing about communication is — what is your goal? If you’re trying to get your kids to talk to you — then when they talk to you, you gotta be open and listen, and you can’t be mad at them or ashamed or shut them down. I end up listening to my 10 year-old son talk about Minecraft.

Gina: Oh, yes.

Dr. Newring: A lot! Like a lot!

Gina: I’m familiar with that.

Dr. Newring: So many mods. I don’t even know. But in order to sort of encourage him to talk to me, I have to be willing to just listen to him on whatever he is open about. I mean, that’s gonna sort of open the door to more complicated conversations later.

Gina: So instead of maybe, you know, preaching what you want them to model, it’s more about listening to them and then finding a way to work through the emotions.

Dr. Newring: Absolutely.

Gina: I have to remember that. Sometimes, I forget that it’s so important to listen to kids. Because as parents, we wanna be listened to, as well. And as kids, sometimes I feel like they — well, they don’t feel listened to. They feel talked to.

Dr. Newring: Right, right. And when you’ve got these emotions — these big emotions. Like you have to — you’re gonna have to figure out how to express them appropriately. What to do? What you can say, who you can talk to.

Dealing with Emotions

Gina: So, how can we as parents, you know, teach our kids besides modeling to deal with their emotions? What’s the best way to do that?

Dr. Newring: Besides modeling — being open to them. My mom used to say to me, “You can feel bad, and you can say you feel bad but you may not act bad.”

And I think it’s a lot of that. Just sort of making it okay for them to share. Whatever it is they’re sharing, whatever it is they’re feeling. Being okay to hear it. And that’s — that can be really hard as a parent if you’re — especially if your kid is frustrated with you or unhappy with you.

Gina: Welcome to my home.

Dr. Newring: Right, right.

Gina: And many other homes, you know, in the world right now.

Dr. Newring: Yeah.

Getting Kids to Open Up

Gina: So, how should you ask what your kids are feeling? What are some words that you could use or some phrases or sentences?

Dr. Newring: Definitely go for — are you familiar with closed-ended versus open-ended questions?

Gina: I mean sort of but I’d love for you to —

Dr. Newring: Yeah, yeah.

Gina: Say what you —

Dr. Newring: So closed-ended questions are questions that you can answer with like a “yes” or a “no” or a single word. “Where are you from? Do you feel angry?”

So you wanna try and use open-ended questions with kids — “What are you feeling right now? How are you feeling? What is happening inside your body?” Because a lot of — I mean, kids, they start with emotions in their body. We all do but they’re aware of it. So you can ask them, “Where do you feel this big feeling right now? Is it in your tummy? Is it in your heart? Is it in your throat?” And you can kind of — you can identify the emotions a little bit by where they are in the body and how they feel to the child. So asking them just sort of, “What are you experiencing in your body, in your mind, in your heart?”

Gina: Because I know like, for example, when my kids come home for school and — “How was school today?” “Fine.” But — you know, “fine.” But if I ask them, let’s just say, “How was your lunch at school today? What did you have for lunch?” Or, “How was math today? Did you enjoy the math that you did?” Stuff like that.

Dr. Newring: Right. Or, “What’s one thing that really stood out to you today? What’s something you felt really bad about?” Or, “How is that friend of yours doing?”

Gina: I like that.

Dr. Newring: Yeah. That usually hooks them in.

Gina: And it’s all about hooking them in because —

Dr. Newring: Absolutely.

Gina: Especially with my boys, sometimes I feel like they’re they — like I need to model better communication. Because I — sometimes girls, and this isn’t always the case. But sometimes I feel like girls will tell you more but my boys are a little more like, you know, a little more shut off.

Dr. Newring: Yeah. Well, and there are some — there are some little tips and tricks that you can use. One is being side-by-side with them both facing forward. So if you’re walking beside them or driving beside them, they will open up much easier. If they’re not directly facing you, having to make eye contact, it’s much easier for them to open up.

Gina: What a great tip. I’m definitely gonna try that.

Dr. Newring: Absolutely.

Gina: That is a really, really good tip.

Parenting an Emotional Child

Gina: Now, how do you parent an emotional child?

Dr. Newring: With a lot of patience and love and forgiveness and grace for them and for you. I mean — I think it’s really important for parents to acknowledge that it’s difficult to parent emotional children. That’s really hard. I mean the first thing people go to is, “Is the child okay?” And yeah, the child needs work, too. But the parents don’t do a great job of taking care of themselves first. Sorry, let me just throw that piece in there.

Gina: Yeah, that’s true.

Dr. Newring: Parenting an emotional child is just — it’s being very patient. Sort of accepting the child where they are. “I understand that you’re feeling big emotions, I understand that you’re really upset,” or, “You look really upset,” or, “You look really angry. Do you wanna talk about it? What can we do about this?” And then just sort of walking them through the problem-solving steps.

Gina: And maybe as parents we look at other families and we say, “Well, that kid isn’t as emotional as my kid.” But all kids are different.

Dr. Newring: Oh, yes.

Gina: So, the comparison thing, I think, sometimes gets in the way.

Dr. Newring: Yeah. Trips us up a lot. And you know, nobody wants to be the one to say, “Well my kid’s messed up, man.”

Gina: Right, right, right. They’re very emotional, right.

Dr. Newring: But everyone’s different and every child has their own sort of communication strengths and weaknesses. Some people have an easier time talking about Minecraft mods than others.

Seeking Professional Help

Gina: We’ll have to talk after this. Oh, man. And finally, what are the signs that signal maybe a more serious mental issue or emotional disorder in kids, where we need to come see someone just like you at Children’s?

Dr. Newring: I feel like the three kind of big ones are, number 1 — distress. If the kid is upset about how upset they get or if the parent is, sort of, always feeling off-kilter because of how emotional the kid is. If there’s — if somebody’s unhappy, worried — it’s probably time to talk to somebody.

If there’s any danger, of course. You know, if they’re hitting the wall and the picture comes crashing down and you have shattered glass, you’re talking danger at that point.

And the third is, I feel like once — I mean as parents we’re always trying things. We’re students of parenting all the time.

Gina: Very true.

Dr. Newring: So, you try something new and you see how it works. The kids that I worry about are the ones that cannot change. So, no matter what you do, you can’t calm them down. You can’t get past this issue. You can’t use a certain word. So they get stuck on something or the family gets stuck on something. And that’s when I would look for help.

Gina: Yeah. And there’s nothing wrong with asking for help.

Dr. Newring: Right.

Gina: As parents, we always think, “Oh, I should have the answer to that.” But there’s not always an answer. Sometimes you need a professional to come in and help you, just like you.

Dr. Newring: Absolutely. And I have a lot of kids that I see that they’re not, like, messed up, they’re not sick, they’re not hurting. They just want a place where they can talk about stuff.

Gina: Sure.

Dr. Newring: That’s not a parent and it’s not the friend that they wanna talk about.

Gina: Yeah. Neutral source.

Dr. Newring: Absolutely.

Gina: A neutral source. I mean there’s nothing wrong with therapy for parents or kids.

Dr. Newring: Absolutely.

Gina: So, how does that work when a child goes into therapy? How does the communication process work? Do you relay to the parents what’s going on?

Dr. Newring: That is an excellent question. And the answer, there is no single answer. The answer is, it depends on so many things. It depends on how old the child is, on what the issues are that the child is coming in for. On sort of the kind of parent that you’ve got, whether it’s a parent who really needs to know all the details or not. It depends on the therapist. We have — we’re very different people.

I mean even just within behavioral health, we’re very different people with very different styles. So some people — some of the therapists will tell parents most of what went on or they’ll work with the kid and then bring the parent in and talk about all that. I very rarely share with parents what’s going on. I’ll share the sort of general, you know, “We discussed in the beginning, we were gonna be working on coping skills or family relationships.” And I’ll share something like, “We did that. We worked on that thing.” But I won’t give a lot of detail. I will encourage my patients most of the time to tell their parents what they’re working on. Because I think it’s really important for them to be communicating and for them to be controlling that flow of communication with their parents.

Gina: That makes a lot of sense.

Dr. Newring: That’s what we’re working on. Yeah.

Gina: Well, thank you so much. Thank you, Dr. Newring.

Dr. Newring: Absolutely.

Gina: I’m gonna use some of these techniques when I get home.

Dr. Newring: Let me know how they work.

Gina: Will do.

Well, thank you so much for listening to the Just Kids Health Podcast and please remember to rate review and subscribe. And for more information on how we can help your child, visit and follow us on social media.


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