Caring for kids comes with its fair share of challenges, and one of the most impossible to avoid is upsetting your child. Sometimes, it’s part of your job to do things or make decisions your child won’t like. Other times, we upset our kids in ways that are unintentional and avoidable—we’re all human.
The best you can do as a caregiver is to learn what upsets your child and be prepared to take positive steps to repair your bond after those unavoidable conflicts.
In this article, we’ll go over some typical triggers for a young child, along with helpful scripts and tips that can help you resolve emotional upset with healing and care.
Common Parental Behaviors That Trigger Child Upset
When it comes to maintaining a harmonious household, understanding how your behavior can cause your child to feel frustrated or angry is an important piece of the puzzle. As a caregiver, actions and words that seem harmless to you can make your child feel intense feelings like being:
- Emotionally imbalanced
Let’s take a look at some of the most common parental behaviors that can lead to child upset, along with ways to reframe these interactions for better outcomes.
#1 Overlooking Your Child’s Input
Children crave validation and inclusion in decision-making. Disregarding their opinions or thoughts can easily create frustration.
When you make a decision that impacts your child, whether that’s signing them up for a new extracurricular activity or choosing which movie to watch, try inclusive phrases like:
- “I’d like to know what you think.”
- “Let’s decide together.”
- “I want to hear how you feel.”
#2 Inconsistency in Rules or Promises
Young children thrive on knowing what to expect. Changing rules unexpectedly or going back on a promise are two major causes of parent/child conflict. Try to take a beat for reflection before making promises that might not be doable.
If you do have to change plans or rules, try phrases like:
- “I know we usually do it this way, but today is a bit different because [give a simple explanation]. Let’s talk about what to expect now.”
- “I’m sorry we can’t do what I promised. I made a mistake.”
#3 Excessive Criticism or Comparison
Negative feedback or comparing children to others can be damaging to their self-esteem. Of course, we all have to receive constructive feedback from time to time, but be careful to deliver it with care and thought. Try to avoid unhelpful criticism like:
- “Your sister could do it at your age.”
- “You should know better.”
- “You never listen.”
Communication Problems and Their Impact
You’re probably careful to use effective communication tools in your work life, with friends, and with other adults. But when we interact with kids, it’s all too easy to let those good habits slip.
Here are two of the biggest communication pitfalls we see in parent-child dynamics:
Not Listening or Being Present
We spend lots of time with our kids. It’s often in our most familiar relationships that we fall into a habit of being inattentive. But kids are very attuned to a lack of engagement from their parents, so try to keep your active listening hat on as you interact with your kids.
- Show engagement – Make eye contact and set aside distractions.
- Help them put their feelings into words – “I can see you’re very sad,” or “It seems like you’re angry, and I’d like to help.”
- Ask open-ended questions – “How did that make you feel?” or “Would you like to tell me about that?”
Using Negative or Dismissive Language
You may feel like your frustrated child isn’t paying close attention to what you say, but words and tones matter. Try to model a positive tone during difficult conversations by:
- Avoiding phrases that minimize feelings – “It’s no big deal,” “There’s nothing to cry about,” “You’re overreacting,” etc.
- Substituting positive words for negative words – Instead of using negative language, try providing positive direction. So, “Don’t yell,” becomes “Use your inside voice.” “Stop running,” becomes “Please walk in the house.” “Don’t hit,” becomes “Play gently.”
Behavioral Responses and What They Communicate
When your child is upset, the way they show it can clue you into the underlying message. Here are two typical behavioral signals to watch for and how to respond:
Withdrawal or Silence
When a child refuses to talk when upset or shuts down, they may be struggling to understand, recognize, or process their emotions. Alternatively, your toddler may remember you shouting at them from a previous outburst and fears a similar outcome. Reflect or offer other ways of helping them find their words.
- Try saying, “It’s hard to know what to say right now” or “I bet you are thinking right now about it.”
- Use reflective listening to help them identify confusing emotions.
Outbursts or Defiance
Anger or defiance is usually a signal of deeper negative feelings underneath. This is often fear, anxiety, shame, or sadness. It can also be a sign that they’re struggling to process sensory information and feeling flooded.2
Instead of punishing an angry child, try to gently de-escalate with the following:
- “I see that you’re upset. Let’s take a deep breath together.”
- “I know you’re mad. Let’s count to ten together.”
If these points don’t work, simply make space for your child to be frustrated while stopping them from engaging in any unsafe behaviors.
Fostering a Supportive Environment for Expression
It’s tough for an upset child to calm down, regulate their system, and put their feelings into words. That’s a tall order even for adults! You can help by building a supportive, trusting environment when things are calm.
Encouraging Emotional Expression
Helping kids feel safe enough to tell you about any feeling is the best way to ensure you’ll be able to communicate when things get tough. To set the stage:
- Try to greet your child’s emotions with acceptance and curiosity
- Avoid judgment or shaming
- Avoid making your child feel that their emotions hurt or upset you
Role-Modeling Healthy Emotional Management
Children learn emotion management by watching how you process your own big feelings. When you make a mistake like being angry or frustrated, try to acknowledge it. Then, take time to reconnect and repair your bond afterward.
You can model appropriate emotion management by talking about your own feelings openly:
- “I’m upset right now, but I’m going to do some belly breathing to calm down. Want to do it with me?”
- “I had a bad day, but it’s okay to be upset sometimes.”
- “I made a mistake when I yelled. It’s okay to feel mad, but that’s not how to show it.”
- Try the Repair Bear affirmation if you’re not sure what to say
Manage Big Feelings Better With Help From Slumberkins
Caregivers usually have the best intentions when interacting with their kids. But as in all our close family relationships, we can’t always be our best selves with our children. When your child gets upset, it’s often helpful to take a moment to consider how your behavior might be affecting theirs.
At Slumberkins, we know you’re always striving to learn better ways to manage difficult feelings right alongside your kids.
That’s why every one of our products is designed to help caregivers find new ways to build deeper connections with their children. Be sure to visit our Caregiver Resources for more activities and ideas to help you navigate the daily ups and downs of parenting with ease.
- "Active listening." Center for Disease Control. https://www.cdc.gov/parents/essentials/toddlersandpreschoolers/communication/activelistening.html
- LOpes Vasco. "Angry kids: Dealing with explosive behavior." Child Mind Institute. https://childmind.org/article/angry-kids-dealing-with-explosive-behavior/