Emotions are a part of life. They come in a variety of sizes, including small, medium, and, yes, jumbo. When you’re confronted with a big emotion from someone — perhaps a sudden sobbing because of built up stress, a venting of frustrations that results in a laundry list of issues — it can be hard to know how to react. This is all the more true because such moments often come as a surprise. You think everything is going along well, and then, without much warning, there’s the big emotion from your child, spouse, friend, or whomever. You want to help, but how?
It such situations it’s easy to do the wrong thing. Here’s a common scenario. To try to contain the big emotion, you break out one these well-meaning but unhelpful lines:
- “Breathe.” (This rarely works.)
- “All you need to do is …” (Also rarely works.)
- “Calm down.” (Really?)
“In the history of the world, no one has ever calmed down by being told to calm down,” says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, psychologist, co-author of Growing Feelings and host of the Kids Ask Dr. Friendtastic podcast.
Oh, and there’s one more line that might be the most useless of all: Asking them to “Stop.”
It’s understandable why one might try these routes. Part of it is out of concern. You don’t want to see someone you love in pain. But you also don’t want to feel uncomfortable, and big emotions can be uncomfortable to be around. Tears may start and, if they do, it feels like they’ll never end (they will) and they’re because you’re a bad parent or spouse (it’s not). Mostly, it’s common to worry about having to do something to help them and not succeeding.
“The fear is we have to go there and fix it,” says Dana Dorfman, psychotherapist and author of When Worry Works.
Here’s the thing: You don’t have to fix it. But it’s normal to want to try. A common mistake, then, is trying too hard to push past the emotion to get to a quick solution. When you do this with an adult, there’s a slight chance that it could work. With kids, there’s very little. And few people want to be rushed through something that feels significant.
So how do you better support someone experiencing a big emotion? Well, it means sitting there and being patient and supportive. Yes, sometimes it means being quiet. Other times, words can help, sometimes even actions. But they need to be the right ones. Here are some to consider.
1. Check In With Yourself
When someone is experiencing big emotions, take a minute and ask yourself, How am I feeling? This check-in helps you understand “what feelings are getting ignited” when others are experiencing larger feelings, Dorfman says. If you can recognize that you’re becoming stressed or agitated, you’re more likely to rein it in and become more responsive. Conversely, if you don’t take this pause, you’re more likely to add to the tension, battle the other person, and try to shut them down.
Now that you’re aware, tell yourself, I can handle this. Sure, you might not believe it, but say it like you do, because likely you can. Remind yourself that you don’t have to fix anything. You’re not being judged as a parent or spouse even though it might sound like it. This is about how the other person is struggling. All you have to do is be willing to stay — as in not exit the room — and the message, and even some modeling, gets through.
“I can tolerate this,” she says. “This doesn’t scare me.”
2. Help Them Name What They’re Feeling And Why
Everyone can have a hard time pinpointing what’s wrong, especially kids. Saying something like “You’re feeling (blank) because of (blank),” or “It bothers you when …,”or “You wish …,” labels the feelings and makes them seem not quite as big.
“You’re holding half the weight,” says Kennedy-Moore. “It just feels good to be heard and understood.”
That validation, that person knowing what they’re feeling is all right, is the key element. Without it, there’s no listening and certainly no chance for problem-solving. Your goal is empathy. Sometimes that requires repeating the above, or some form of, “I can see that” or “That completely stinks,” and with kids, you’re looking to see a softening of their face and/or body; even a grunt of acknowledgment is positive movement.
You might hesitate, because naming someone else’s feelings seems too intrusive and you might be wrong. So? You’re not telling them they are feeling something, just trying to pare down the options. If it’s wrong, they’ll correct you. And when you try, don’t hesitate using their language, as in, “Your brother is acting like a butthead.” Those kinds of words can get through, possibly get a laugh, because the goal is not to prove how awesome a parent you are “but to connect with your kid,” she says.
3. Understand The Power of Just Being Present
In many situations, listening can feel way too passive, and you’ll have an urge to do something. The thing is you already are. “Sitting there is an action,” Dorfman says. And you don’t need to be still. You can hold their hand, rub their back, get a glass of water for them, even yourself. The last one could be the break that you need to collect yourself and remind yourself of how you want to be in this situation.
You can also give a running commentary, either in your head or out loud. I’m here for you. I’m not going anywhere. I wish I could make this better. It makes it more active, more engaging for you, and it also expresses your vulnerability.
“You’re meeting them in an emotional state,” she says. And while it’s good to try this, if they tell you to stop talking, stop talking. If they brush you off, let them, since it’s not about you and it gives them control.
4. Ask What Might Help
It sounds simple, but if they’re calm and you’re not sure what to do, asking what might help is a good tactic. They might know and then you don’t have to guess. But if they’re not sure, suggest something. You want to be careful using this tactic with kids, because they can’t jump steps and your suggestion could come off as pushing them. But with your spouse, friend, or relative, use your history and knowledge of what’s helped them in the past: watching a particular show, playing cards, getting some baked goods.
At the end of the day, handling someone else’s emotion is more art than science. People react to words differently, and how you were supportive yesterday may not work at all today. The consistent thread is that you’re present, that you care, and even if you get snapped at, you keep trying.