Although I’ve been through it before, I still feel my face turn bright red when my child is melting down in public. I know many parents feel sympathy for me in the moment yet I still feel like I want to hide behind a rock.
I know I’m not the only parent who has a child with BIG feelings!
Thankfully I’ve found a tool I learned in graduate school for Psychology that helps kids express these big feelings easily. Keep reading to learn how to use I-statements for kids.
A few weeks ago I was walking my daughter in to preschool. My son was having an epic meltdown and crying hysterically. I was practically dragging him in with my hand. Of course we were running late and we had to drop my daughter off.
His voice was echoing through the building. I felt everyone looking at me. One mom made a comment like “it happens to all of us.”
So do you want to know the reason my son was crying? He didn’t get to listen to the entire Mary Poppins song in the car.
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Has this ever happened to you? Your child is UPSET, but they don’t know how to express their feelings without screaming and crying.
It always seems to happen at the most public places in the most inconvenient of times, doesn’t it!?
When I was taking my daughter to preschool I honestly wanted to run and hide! But life must go on and my son needed to learn he can’t always get his way and things won’t always go according to his plans.
How to Help Kids Express Big Feelings
When toddlers feel angry or frustrated their first reaction is to often scream, hit, yell or cry. Not the best first reaction for public settings.
If you have a toddler, I recommend this strategy for toddler meltdowns! If your kids are older, keep reading!
As kids get older, preschool or elementary age they can start to identify the feelings before an explosion.
First, they need to be able to identify what anger feels like.
Side note: You can do this easily with books! See my top 20 books to teach social emotional skills to young kids.
After they are able to do this, they can be taught how to handle these meltdowns with the strategy below.
So How Do We Deal With These BIG emotions?
We all experience emotions like frustration and anger, but it’s how we handle these big emotions that makes the difference.
As a parent I feel it’s my job to guide my kids and model how to express these BIG emotions in appropriate ways. Sometimes this requires patience!
Here is a strategy I used for many years with my elementary students. I worked in the school system as a school psychologist.
Help kids express big feelings by teaching them to use I-Statements!
First, we need to know what an I-Statement is:
What is an I-Statement?
“I feel ____.”
“I feel ____ when you ____. Can you please ____?”
There are a few variations to I-statements. It can be as simple as “I don’t like when you take my toy.”
As kids get older it may sound like “I feel frustrated when you take the puzzle pieces I am using to put it all together. Can you please wait until I am done playing with it?” This is a great example of an I-Statement for kids.
So why should you use an I-Statement?
The opposite of an I-statement is a you-statement.
Examples of you-statements include you always do whatever you want and you never think about what I want (fill in the blanks: you always ____ and you never _____). Kids who have big emotions often use these types of phrases.
You-statements made when a child is frustrated can escalate the situation quickly. No one likes being ridiculed or harshly criticized.
Instead of criticizing the other person with a you-statement, I-statements teach kids how to express how they feel.
Helping Kids Deal With Big Emotions
It’s not always easy to express your feelings, especially when you are upset. Though the sooner a child learns how to confront an issue and express his or her feelings the easier social communication will become.
IMPORTANT! Expression Doesn’t Mean They Always Get What They Want
Kids also must realize even if they express their frustration using an I-Statement it doesn’t mean they will automatically get their way. Let’s say my son told me “Mommy I’m sad because I wanted to listen to the rest of Mary Poppins.”
I would validate his feelings, but challenge him to adapt. Again, life won’t always go his way and this is a big life lesson he needs to learn! “I know you are upset honey, I’m sorry we couldn’t finish the song. We needed to get your sister into school on time.”
I may even add an enforceable boundary (see more about how to do this here). “If you keep crying when we have to turn the music off, mommy isn’t going to let you listen to it anymore.”
So When Should I Start Teaching This?
You don’t have to wait until your kids are teenagers to teach them this. That’s too late!
Kids benefit from learning social emotional strategies at a young age. They will already have a handle on difficult conversations and emotions for when they get older!
Try implementing I-statements BEFORE the next meltdown. They will learn best if they are calm and in a private setting. Talk about a time they felt frustrated or angry.
“How did that make you feel?”
“How did you react?”
“What could you do next time?”
“Let’s try to put this into an I-statement.”
Model appropriate I-statements for kids. It may seem awkward at first, but with time it gets easier and feels more natural.
Last Tips on Teaching I-Statements for Kids
Before a child learns to use I-statements they must be able to accurately identify how they are feeling.
Talk about your feelings regularly with your kids, read books focused on social emotional skills or watch a TV program focused on feelings.
Daniel Tiger is a great tool to help reinforce the identification of feelings. After watching the “I’m frustrated” episode a few times, my three year old was able to correctly identify when she felt frustrated!
Talk about what you learn after you read a book or watch a show with your child. Then the next time you are about to experience a feeling crisis in public you will have some tools to help your child calm down and express BIG emotions.
Do you have a child with big feelings? How do you handle it?
Have you used I-Statements for kids before? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
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