Dear David Coleman: 'Our six-year-old can't control her emotions'

Q Our six-year-old daughter has just finished senior infants. She is a very active child. Both myself and my husband work full-time. Outwardly, our daughter seems to be a happy, settled child, but we have noticed at home that she can be very anxious, and doesn’t seem to have the ability to control her emotions. She gets upset, scared or cross very easily. She also has a younger sister. Her ad hoc crying concerns us especially. We would like to know what we can do to help her, maybe to help her build tools to adjust her thinking?

David replies: Lots of six-year-olds will experience strong emotions that they cannot regulate. They still need adult support to both understand and deal with their emotions. Because she is the older of your two, she may seem more mature and developed than her sister and so, especially since she started school, you may have had greater expectations of her ability to soothe and settle herself when she gets emotional.

The extent of her emotional outbursts may also be part of an unconscious process of care-seeking. It is not unusual for children to learn (subconsciously) that a particular kind, or intensity of outburst from them elicits a particular kind of care or caring response from us.

The key thing that a girl her age needs is lots of emotional understanding and empathy from you and her dad. She needs your help to identify her feelings, including the intensity of them, and she also needs your help to regulate the adrenalin that may be released during her emotional outbursts. So, if she seems upset, cross or anxious, you might like to still give her a hug, or invite her to cuddle on your knee while you make educated guesses about what you think she feels.

Those educated guesses become empathy statements, where you try to identify the feeling you think she has. I’ll give you some examples of empathy statements here, for fictional issues.

* “I see that you are crying and I guess that you feel really sad or upset about something”

* “That might have been really scary when you were calling for me and I never answered you”

You can see, from the examples, that I am trying to identify the feeling, and then link that feeling to whatever incident or experience, precipitated it. This helps your daughter to work out her feelings and to fit those feelings with the events in her life.

Repeating this process, regularly, with her, when she seems upset, scared or cross, will help to develop her emotional intelligence and will allow her to build the skills required to regulate her emotions.

Even with this kind of approach, children do sometimes get overwhelmed by feelings and still require our help to soothe, even when they are teenagers.

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