by Dr. Genevieve Nehrt

Sometimes it might seem like the littlest kids have the biggest emotions. Emotions that come out in loud, unpredictable, and sometimes aggressive ways.  When big emotions are too much for our little ones, we can see tantrums, mean words, or impulsive behavior. 

Some of the most common emotions our kids feel are:

  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Fear
  • Jealousy

Name it, Explain it, Contain it

It’s important to help our children learn how to talk about their big feelings. We can give them the tools they need to express how they’re feeling, before their emotions take over. One technique is called: Name it, Explain it, Contain it. This technique helps kids develop appropriate emotional awareness and develop coping skills. You’ll teach them how to:

  • NAME their emotion
  • EXPLAIN what might have led to the emotion
  • and work to CONTAIN the behaviors related to their emotions

All Emotions are OK

All emotions are okay and normal, and we want our kids to know that it’s okay to feel whatever they are feeling. We also want them to know that emotions aren’t permanent, and if they ride that emotional wave it will eventually end.

Observe & Label

Being good observers and identifying what you see is important. Instead of telling your children they feel a certain way, try saying what it looks like.

It may feel like semantics, but by saying “it looks like,” you are allowing them space to tell you if they are not feeling that way. This allows them to connect their current feelings with a word to express them in the future.

Use Stories as Examples

Another way to build connection between situations and feelings, is through the use of books or movies.  Pausing in the middle of reading, or talking about a show afterwards, can help kids build empathy skills.  Asking, “How do you think that made the character feel?” or “How does the character feel?” increases your child’s vocabulary around emotions.


Anger is an emotion that can often be seen in kids, as it’s easily provoked with someone else grabs a toy or refuses to share. When situations like this arise, kids can go into Cave-Kid Brain where flight, fight, or freeze instincts are running the show.

When Cave-Kid Brain is in charge, your child is likely responding to a situation that caused frustration or pain.

Name It

When you help your kiddo identify the emotion by saying, “It looks like you’re mad,” you’re helping your child connect what they’re feeling inside with words to express themselves in the future. 

Explain It

Help your child connect a trigger to their feeling. For example, “When things don’t go the way we want it can make us feel upset.”  Connection in this way can improve their ability to use their words instead of reacting. 

Contain It

When our kids are angry, validating their emotions can sometimes be enough to help redirect the trajectory of their emotions.  Saying, “It looks like you’re really frustrated,” allows them to feel heard and seen.  Finding skills that work for your own kiddo can be helpful in offering them different options to manage their frustrations. 


Sadness is an emotion that kids may feel when they have lost something or feel let down.  Your child may feel this when they are scared, when someone says or does something hurtful, or when something they were looking forward to falls through. 

Name It

In addition to tears; sadness may look like anger, clinginess, or isolation.  Recognizing and addressing underlying sadness is important, because it can at times turn into anger and lead to a meltdown.  Saying things like, “It looks like you’re really sad” can help identify what’s really going on for our kiddos.

Explain It

Validating feelings is key here. Being able to comfort children when they are sad builds trust that you will be there for them, and provides predictable scripts that increase the likelihood of them coming to you in the future. 

It can be beneficial for kids to see adults showing emotions and to say, “Daddy/Mommy is sad too.”

Contain It

Providing extra hugs or snuggles can be important, as is potentially sharing times when you have been really sad. Helping kids to feel comfortable crying, expressing their feelings, and asking for help when they are overwhelmed are all important skills that will help as they grow. 


Fear or Worry can develop as kids grow older.  Typical or natural fears can include the dark, strangers, and being separated from parents.  At other times, kids may hear things from TV, have experienced a real-life event, or has seen something/someone that makes them uncomfortable. 

Name It

We can’t always protect our kids from things going on around us, like a global pandemic, but we can validate their feelings about what’s going on around them.  Saying things like, “that does sound scary” instead of telling them not to worry or that everything will be fine can be more helpful for them to process their emotions. 

Explain It

Just like when we talked about sadness, it’s okay to admit to our kids that you have similar feelings. 

Allowing them to ask questions can be helpful in understanding what is scary for them.  And if you don’t have all the answers, that’s okay too.  You can always let your kiddo know that you don’t know, but that you can try to learn more and get back to them. 

Contain It

Sometimes sharing their emotions can be enough for kids.  When emotions are too heavy for them, sharing the load can help them feel like they are not alone and that you are there any time for comfort and a listening ear. 


Jealousy is an emotion that kids often feel, and it has a tendency to get the best of all of us. This can also be a complicated emotion for kids, but you may see your kiddo experience it when you hold another baby or when someone else (a sibling or friend) is getting a present.

Jealousy doesn’t always simply mean concern over not having something someone else has – it can also signal inadequacy, resentment, or feelings of helplessness for kids.

Name It

As young as toddlers, our kids might be saying things like, “I want what she has,” and experience material jealousy.  A different type of jealousy can arise in families where children believe that they will lose affection, security or attention because another activity/person takes your time away from them.  In either of these situations, asking your kiddo about what is making him cry helps to connect triggers and emotions.

Explain It

Validating their emotions is important and recognizing that it can be upsetting when we don’t get what we want. Making statements like, “I see you’re upset that you didn’t get a present today and sometimes we don’t get what we want” can be helpful in hearing/seeing our kids without invalidating. When validating feelings try to use AND instead of BUT, especially in situations of jealousy, BUT can lead our kids to feel invalidated.

Contain It

Normalize the jealous feeling they’re having. Follow up the validating sentence with “And it’s normal to want a present. Today your friend gets presents because it’s his birthday.”

After validating and normalizing, you can shift attention to a fun activity to look forward to in the near future. Focus on telling your children what they can do in those moments instead of what they shouldn’t or can’t do.

Genevieve Nehrt, Psy.D.
Staff Psychologist

How to Talk to Kids About Big Emotions