Is your kid old enough now that they’d just roll their eyes if you tried to suggest something like, “Let’s take five deep breaths together” when they’re upset? It’s time to learn some new coping mechanisms that are more age appropriate, and that cut through the resistance when they’re clearly angry or anxious but just don’t want your help—or don’t want to admit they do.
These seven options help your older child deal with negative emotions in healthier ways. With these more advanced coping mechanisms, your kid is less likely to feel like they’re being patronized or misunderstood—and more likely to feel better.
7 options for helping an upset teen/tween cope
- Provide hands-on tools, without the pressure
- Tell an inner secret
- Literally change the soundtrack
- Fact-check negative thoughts
- Play “What’s the worst that could happen?”
- Switch parent/child roles
- Model setting a concrete goal
Provide hands-on tools, without the pressure
Sometimes kids don’t want to admit they want your help, because the added pressure from you stresses them out even more. Try suggesting a hands-on calming activity, then step away so they can decide to try it without you watching them or lecturing about its benefits.
Say: “Here, I left some bubble wrap and these new drawing pens here for you. Just in case you need a good distraction.”
Then give them some space and quiet. After they’ve calmed their nerves or anger a bit, you can see if they’re ready to talk.
Tell an inner secret
Start telling your child about a time when you had a really strong emotion and what you did about it. It helps demonstrate that you’re human and you’ve dealt with difficult things too.
If the story is also funny or embarrassing in some way, it could be more effective in lifting the cloud of negative emotions just enough for them to open up to you.
Say something like: “Once I was really angry at your dad and just wanted to get away and think, so I ended up walking all the way across town, but then I was so far away and so hungry that I had to call him to come pick me up.”
Literally change the soundtrack
Music can be a great calming or mood-boosting tool, but you might not know what your child wants to listen to. So try to use a little humor and distraction to get them there: Start playing a song that you like but you know your kid will make fun of, or a goofy song that your kid loved as a toddler, or even a cheesy “relaxing ambiance” video.
Say: “I know you probably hate this song, but it’s what I listen to when I’m feeling down. Here, change it to whatever you want.”
Fact-check negative thoughts
If your child’s brain is blaring something emotion-based like, “I’m going to make a fool of myself during my presentation today,” of course they’ll feel nervous and upset going into their day. But it’s important to remember that their thoughts are not facts. Help them break down what’s bothering them into facts without emotions.
Say: “What evidence do you have for or against that thought? Let’s make a list of only the facts.”
If need be, help them think of a couple of facts to get started, such as: “Everyone else in the class will be giving a presentation too” and “You have notes written down for what to say.”
Play “What’s the worst that could happen?”
This is another way to give your child a reality check, and can also provide a creative outlet for them to express themselves. Once they have a grasp on the worst outcome that they’re afraid of, they can realize that not only is that probably not going to happen, but even if it did happen, they’d survive.
Say: “Sometimes when I’m feeling anxious it helps when I ask myself: What’s the worst thing that could happen? And then I write down or voice-record an over-the-top story about how horrible everything could go. Feel free to share it with me if you want, or just toss it.”
Switch parent/child roles
After a child has gotten some space and calmed down, one way to talk about how to improve behavior next time is to ask hypothetical questions and even try a little role play. This kind of prompt can help them get out of their own head and see the bigger picture.
Say: “If you were the parent and I was the kid, what would you do if I came home and started yelling and pushing my brother and slamming the doors, and wouldn’t tell anyone what was wrong?”
This can lead to a discussion about which behaviors are hurtful to others or yourself, and what the consequences should be for those behaviors—as well as healthier ways to express strong emotions.
Model setting a concrete goal
If your teen or tween seems stuck in an unhealthy pattern of expressing (or not expressing) their emotions, it could help if they set a specific goal or intention, like only saying kind words to a sibling. But take it one day at a time to start.
Most kids won’t be motivated by you setting a goal for them, so first make a realistic goal for yourself, and then let them set their own.
Say: “Why don’t we each set a goal for the day, and we can check in with each other later? My goal is to look at people when I’m talking so I don’t have to yell across the house. So feel free to remind me if I forget.”
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