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05/08/2013 12:02 pm ET Updated Jul 08, 2013

Are Words Enough When My Child's Upset?

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My 2 1/2-year-old is very good at expressing his feelings, ("I feel like hitting," etc). Typically, I remind him that we can't do those things, and we talk about how to handle the situation in a different way. Lately, he has started saying, "I feel like yelling" when he's upset or angry.  Should I encourage him to yell and get his feelings out, or is this causing bad habits for later in life? What other ways can he express himself when he's angry?

Bravo to you for helping your little one learn to tune in to what he's feeling and find words to express his emotions. Your son stands to have an emotionally healthy life if he continues to know that it's safe to offload big feelings with words, rather than by hurting himself or others.

Here are my thoughts about how to help your son when he is angry:

Children feel things passionately. As wonderful as it is that your little guy is able to articulate his frustration, it may not always be enough. Let him pound a pillow, whack a punching bag, stamp his feet or yell if the setting is right. Anger is a very physical emotion, and words alone aren't always enough to dissipate the associated feelings.

• Avoid over-intellectualizing. Some children are extremely precocious, learning to use sophisticated language that makes them appear much older than they are. While it's great that your son can put words to his emotions, be careful not to raise him to become detached from what he is experiencing. Being verbally skillful at describing emotions can prevent feelings from being truly felt and processed.

• Model healthy ways of dealing with life's ups and downs. We all get upset from time to time; it's human nature. Rather than stuffing your feelings down or acting them out in passive or aggressive ways, show your son what it looks like to experience disappointment in healthy ways, without overdramatizing or blaming others. "Oh, darn! I was so hoping that the gas station would still be open!" rather than, "If you all had moved faster, we would have made it here before it closed. Now we might just run out of gas and have to walk home!"


• Allow your son to simply cry, if he needs to.
Anger is almost always the outer manifestation of hurt and sadness. Help your little boy have a good cry if he needs to, and he will be able to move through his frustration more easily.

• Let your son know that it's OK to feel upset. Parents often try to convince their children that they're making a fuss over nothing. Explain that you understand he's frustrated without trying to cheer him up or making things better. "You were really hoping that Thomas could come over and play. It looks like you were sad when his mommy said he didn't feel well. I get it, sweetheart... you really wanted to play with Thomas today." If you don't attempt to offer solutions or takl him out of his unpleasant feelings, your son will learn that he can feel and survive disappointment.

• Make sure that your son gets plenty of opportunity to play outside. Many children spend far too much time in front of the TV, computer, or Mommy's cell phone or iPad. While screens can be wonderful diversions -- and buy parents a few minutes of quiet -- children need to move, climb, dig and run. Make time for your son to burn off the day's frustrations by good old fashioned outdoor play.

Children experience frustration many times a day. While it's true that parents are only as happy as their saddest child, children become resilient by living through loss and disappointment. Help your little boy use his words to express upset while providing him the opportunity to get his feelings out and he will be better able to handle life's ups and downs.

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Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected. She is a family therapist, parent coach and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting. To learn more, visit her Facebook page or sign up for her free newsletter at ParentingWithoutPowerStruggles.com.