Handling Big Emotions with Child-Parent Therapy - Handel Behavioral Health
Mental Health Blog

Handling Big Emotions with Child-Parent Therapy

May 9, 2023

A photographic image of a tangle of toddlers' bead maze toys with a stuffed animal cat or bear laying in the middle of it looking somber. The image has an orange tint and comic book ben day dots in the background.

Amy Mauro

Children with emotional dysregulation have the potential to thrive, when they receive proper support from a mental health professional.

We aren’t born knowing how to regulate our emotions. Children aren’t inherently good at communicating their feelings, and what might work to calm one child won’t necessarily work for another. 

Like all two-year-old’s, Ruby’s mood swung like a pendulum. But after turning four, her temper tantrums and dramatic outbursts seemed to get worse. 

With a history of depression, anxiety, and substance use disorder on both sides of the family, Ruby’s mom, Jessica, started to worry about her daughter’s mental health. 

“I’ve always been a big fan of gentle parenting. I didn’t want to push or engage in Ruby’s attention seeking behavior, but I was tired of getting hit in the face and yelled at,” said Jessica. 

The gentle parenting approach wasn’t working for their family, and Ruby’s parents were concerned that something more serious was going on. 

That’s when Jessica and her husband turned to a therapist for support.

Taking Care of Children's Mental Health

Just like adults, children of every age experience feelings of sadness, fear, and frustration. 

Perhaps as parents, the root cause of their suffering is clear: a life transition, a loss, or a disruption in routine. Sometimes parents are unsure of the cause, and wonder what falls outside the limits of typical child behavior. 

When your child has trouble controlling their emotions, it can lead to frequent outbursts, tantrums, and behavioral challenges. It’s important to understand that emotional dysregulation is not a disorder, and it is not a choice. Children with emotional dysregulation have the opportunity to lead a healthier and stable life, when they receive proper support from a mental health professional. 

A child-parent therapist or family therapist can help you understand why your child is struggling with emotional regulation, and offer different interventions to help your child manage their feelings. Your child will find a safe and exploratory environment to express their feelings, and learn new skills to change their behavior. 

When parents prioritize their children’s mental health, through giving them the support they need, the entire family can grow into a healthier unit. Most importantly, parents give their children the support necessary to thrive.

Children’s Mental Health Awareness Month

May is Children’s Mental Health Awareness Month: an opportunity to explore the importance of caring for every child’s mental health, and reinforce that positive mental health is necessary to a thriving childhood. 

HBH is dedicated to furthering the mission of Children’s Mental Health Awareness Month through reducing the stigma of mental health, and connecting children and families with resources for support.

We’re sharing one family’s experience of working with a child-parent therapist and growing together through the process.

Navigating Emotional Dysregulation

When Ruby’s temper struck, it was nearly impossible for Jessica and her husband to calm their four-year old daughter down. 

Hitting, kicking, screaming, and throwing toys, Ruby’s parents did their best to remain calm and level-headed. 

There were no punishments, threats, or timeouts, instead Jessica and her husband made a conscious effort to model gentle parenting. This approach, which Jessica read about thoroughly and found validity in, encourages parents to become aware of the behavior they model for their children. It doesn’t follow strict rules, but is based on empathy, understanding, and respect. 

And while Jessica continues to support gentle parenting, she realized that their approach wasn’t helping Ruby handle her big emotions.

In fact, observing Ruby’s behavior without reacting was causing their strong willed daughter to spiral out of control. 

“We just really didn’t understand what was going on, or how we could help Ruby self-regulate,” said Jessica.

Seeking Support

When Jessica’s friend, a social worker, suggested that they try child-parent therapy, Jessica thought, Do we really need to be doing this? 

“I realized I’d rather intervene early than risk further emotional problems down the road,” said Jessica.

Working Through Behavioral Challenges

After sharing their concerns with the therapist, Jessica and her husband stepped outside, while Ruby and the therapist played together. The therapist read aloud to Ruby, sharing with her that uncomfortable emotions are okay, and there are better ways to express our feelings than through hurting people or turning inward. 

The therapist taught Jessica and her husband new behavioral techniques and communication skills to help Ruby express and manage her big emotions. Acknowledging the emotion, validating the emotion, reflective listening, paying attention to Ruby’s activities, and showing enthusiasm for her activities were taught during the session. 

“Learning to acknowledge Ruby’s emotion was an immediate improvement in our interactions together,” said Jessica.

The therapist used a one-way mirror to observe Jessica and her husband play with Ruby, using the skills they were taught. 

“In the beginning it felt kind of awkward to play with Ruby and hear the therapist in the background commenting on what was working and what technique to try,” said Jessica. 

As the sessions went on, Jessica and her husband found the support not only helpful but necessary.

A New Direction for Parenting

Ruby’s meltdowns weren’t always predictable, but there were situations which led her to spiral.

“Now we make a conscious effort to do 5-10 minutes of quality time with Ruby everyday where she decides the activity,” said Jessica. “It gives Ruby a chance to interact with us without following directions, and reminds her that we’re tuning into her activity.”

Jessica and her husband learned the importance of asking Ruby what she’s experiencing, instead of just assuming or ignoring the attention seeking behavior. Through this, they’ve seen improvements in Ruby’s ability to communicate her thoughts and feelings without lashing out. 

And while Ruby continues to grow and the world continues to change, Jessica and her husband make a dedicated effort to create predictable and familiar routines for their daughter. 

“I’m definitely feeling less concerned about my child hurting me, or ending up with a serious mood disorder,” said Jessica.

It Doesn’t Hurt To Try

“If you’re having serious behavioral problems with your child, be proactive and talk to a professional,” said Jessica. “It doesn’t mean that you’re an incapable parent, and it’s not going to hurt your child.”

While seeking out therapy for your child can seem scary, it’s important to remember that you’re doing the right thing by listening to your child and nurturing their needs. You’re instilling an invaluable lesson in your child at a young age, the importance of positive mental health. 

If you’re looking for support through your parenting process, or concerned that something more serious is going on with your child, there’s no better time to start therapy. Our trained mental health professionals, with experience in child and adolescent therapy, are here for you and your family. 

We serve the entire Massachusetts community with our offices in Amherst, Franklin, West Springfield, and Wilbraham Massachusetts. We also offer online teletherapy services to accommodate your schedule and preferences. 

Contact us today at (413) 343-4357 to schedule an appointment with one of our therapists.

About The Author

Nettie Hoagland Headshot

Nettie Hoagland is a writer with experience in local news reporting, nonprofit communications, and community development. She earned her bachelor of arts degree in Media Studies, Journalism, and Digital Arts from Saint Michael’s College in Vermont. Nettie believes in the healing power of the arts to create connection and community. She is passionate about using writing as an instrument for personal and social growth in the field of mental health. She is currently based in Brooklyn, NY.