Little People, Big Emotions

a toddler experiencing big emotions

The thought-provoking children’s movie Inside Out has helped parents and children understand that “big emotions” are a natural part of childhood. Rachael Parsons suggests ways parents and children can deal positively with these emotions.


Sadness is most often traced back to a situation of grief. That could be the loss or ending of hopes and dreams. Like the movie Inside Out, we need to allow sadness in for awhile and grieve our loss so we can move on and experience joy again. Identify the cause of sadness: What loss are we experiencing? What hopes, dreams, and expectations are not being met or are lost?
Be someone that your child can talk to about their emotions, and learn how to acknowledge their feelings. As a parent, at times I have minimised my child’s sense of loss in a situation and expected them to move on quickly, and sometimes questioned why they were upset at all. This is not helpful, and when friends do the same to me, I feel a sense of abandonment and lack of empathy. Psychoanalysts believe we should allow children to experience loss fully and deeply. It can be difficult to do that when we think the issue is trivial, but we must remember that perception of importance varies between individuals. Child development specialists warn parents not to devalue the emotion of sadness for a child by cheering them up too much and, as a result, minimising their loss. Learning to deal with sadness as a child helps a person address emotional problems better as an adult.


Remember how you felt when you used to be near someone changing a baby’s nappy? But now you’re a parent, you do it without flinching. Yes, we need to help our children to overcome and ignore those big emotions and feelings of disgust when necessary, but also to use it to keep us safe and healthy and to help others. Ever wondered why a toddler will smear its own faeces over the wall or in its cot? Psychologists believe disgust is an emotion which is complex and takes a while to develop fully. The toddler doesn’t realise the smell warns of germs and potential sickness. However, taste is one area in which the toddler is an expert – especially when it comes to control at the dining table. Apparently our taste buds are very strong as babies, and slowly get weaker because cells die as we age and we become less food-fussy. Having such an acute sense of taste as a young child could be a mechanism to protect the young from harmful ingestion of poisonous substances, but still, keep any household poisons well out of reach! Disgust, like anger, can also be a motivator towards social action. Consider what you as a family could do to help others who are suffering from injustice or an unpleasant condition.


Feeling anger comes naturally to kids, who often feel and identify injustice acutely. Anger, linked largely to injustice, can help us by protecting us from being taken advantage of, and it prompts us to put up healthy boundaries. However, it can harm us when we can’t change or accept the injustice it stems from, and we become stuck in a perpetual state of “angry arousal”. If we have to let something go because of a perceived injustice that we can’t change, it is healthy to grieve that loss so we can more easily move on. This is where sadness is linked to anger. As parents, sometimes we find ourselves angry at our child’s lack of compliance. Ask yourself whether your expectation is reasonable and achievable given your child’s age and ability. Then consider: Can you do something to change their behaviour? By using a reward system, asking in a different tone of voice, or putting in calm consequences with equal weighting to lack of action if they don’t? In the case of stroppy behaviour, we can use the “What can I change?” approach too, but sometimes we just have to accept that being a parent is hard work, your children are not perfect (neither are you!), and sometimes you will have to put up with unpleasantness. The world is not a fair place, and being a parent isn’t always fair either. We need to teach our children this and how to handle injustice by how we handle it.


To fully appreciate and experience true joy, we need to have something to contrast it with, and to have first worked through other emotions such as sadness and anger. Often we have many things in our lives which bring us joy, but we don’t recognise them until they are gone or change. Teach your children to appreciate and enjoy the positive things in their lives each day by doing that yourself. Gratefulness and thankfulness are two attitudes that make it easier for us to experience positive emotions and happiness. It is often said that joy is found in the simple things in life. In our bathroom, we have a plaque that says, “Life’s greatest treasures are life’s simplest pleasures.” Joy and sadness seem intrinsically linked. Dr Seuss said, “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” Of course, we do need to cry sometimes because something is over, but if it hadn’t been good, we wouldn’t be missing it!


Fear is designed to protect us from real danger, but sometimes we can be in a state of fear about imagined or possible dangerous situations which might not in reality be dangerous at all or ever eventuate. When I am niggled by anxiety, I try to ask myself how likely is it that what I fear will happen. Then I ask myself what would be the worst thing that would happen if it happened. The next step is to consider what I would do if it happened – to think of a plan and coping strategies. Before I get too involved in these last steps (it might never happen, remember!), I again evaluate how likely it is that it will eventuate. That way, I have worked out how much I really need to be concerned about it, and I have a plan should it happen. When my children are worried about something, I often go through the same process with them, and they do the same back to me. Here is an example. Parent: “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” Child: “The monster could eat me.” Parent: “How many children have you heard of who have been eaten by monsters?”

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