How To Help a Sad Child
Life as a child is anything but easy. The highs and the lows can come only minutes apart, and what needs to be learned and experienced far outweighs what’s already known and understood. We want our children (rightfully so) to smile, laugh, learn, live, achieve and generally have fun. We want them to play with their friends, learn new things at school, be safe, be themselves, and enjoy - nay, love - being part of our family. It’s a lot and it’s achievable, but it is inevitable that growing up won’t all be rainbows and butterflies.
Your “best” child memories might include things like; being at the football pitch pretending to be your favorite football player; playing in the school playground with friends during recess; and returning home to your family reciting and showing off the new things your learned at school - whether that was knowing how to count to 20 or learning how to do an algebra equation. The details of the situation might differ, but the joy and satisfaction was always there.
These are the types of highs we want our children to remember, but we need to understand, appreciate and anticipate that the same events that can bring highs can also bring lows; Missing a penalty kick to lose a football game; fighting with a friend in the playground; and having difficulties with algebra or another form of mathematics. We feel happy when it’s feeling good, but other emotions (sadness, anger, frustration, etc) surface when it’s not. This is totally okay, totally normal and totally acceptable, but unfortunately that doesn’t make it instantly easier for our children to deal with. Learning to understand and cope with these highs and lows (and everything in between) in a learning process that takes a lifetime.
There will be periods (from minutes to months) where your child feels like the world is fighting against them. Adults have plenty of moments like this too! These are the times parents want to be there for our children and want to support them in the best way possible. We want to show them that the sun is hiding behind the dark clouds, just like the rain is going to pass.
Sadness is a very common emotion. As healthline.com explains:
Sadness is a human emotion that all people feel at certain times during their lives. Feeling sad is a natural reaction to situations that cause emotional upset or pain. There are varying degrees of sadness. But like other emotions, sadness is temporary and fades with time. In this way, sadness differs from depression.
Depression is a longer-term mental illness. It impairs social, occupational, and other important areas of functioning. Left untreated, symptoms of depression may last for a long time.
When you’re sad, it may feel all-encompassing at times. But you should also have moments when you are able to laugh or be comforted. Depression differs from sadness. The feelings you have will affect all aspects of your life. It may be hard or even impossible to find enjoyment in anything, including activities and people you used to enjoy. Depression is a mental illness, not an emotion.
There can and will be a million different reasons for your child to feel sad. Regardless of the reason (and whether we perceive that reason to be big, small, important or not), parents play a huge role in helping our children cope with things. We need to help them learn that being vulnerable is okay and being sad is normal. In situations like these, communication and conversations are key. You want your kids to know that no matter what, no matter how big or small, silly or random the problem is, you’re there and always available to support them.
No matter the problem, one key part of the solution is to talk about it. Talk about the feeling they have inside,talk about how it feels, talk about what makes them feel sad, and talk about what things they can do to feel better.
These conversations can happen any time - rain, hail or shine (metaphorically). The earlier you begin talking about feelings and emotions with your child the better. An open conversation about sadness, fear or anger when a child isn’t in that state can help them understand preventative actions for when they are.
A lot of the learning happens during a responsive and/or reflective conversation as well, when you become aware that your child is experiencing the intense emotion. Explain to them (and remind yourself) that emotions are a normal part of life and they’re going through the same things you and everyone else does. It’s here we can help normalize the situation and help our kids to learn to name their emotions and feelings.
There’s a few things to look out for when you’re first approaching these conversations:
- Try not to ‘fix’ the problem - listen, be curious and ask questions to get your child to talk about what they’re feeling and why.
- Be present and avoid distractions. (ie. Put your phone on silent and leave it in a different room)
- Avoid judgmental language or comments. Emotions and feelings are normal, so we don’t want them to feel good and bad, or right and wrong.
- Your child may struggle to name their emotion, so if you’re not sure what they mean ask them to describe what it feels like.
- If your child says they are always happy, or always angry, continue to ask questions about how they feel in different situations. We want kids to become aware of their range of emotions.
Here’s a few questions to get the conversation started:
- What does happy feel like?
- What does sad feel like?
- How do you calm yourself down when you feel angry or excited?
- When you feel intense emotions like anger or excitement, what do you do to calm yourself back down?
- Could you name two feelings or emotions that you think are helpful for you? Why/how are they helpful?
- What is one feeling or emotion that you experience that is not helpful? Why/how does this work against you?
- Sometimes when we experience intense emotions it is helpful if we think about what that emotion is telling us and what we need, before taking action. (Eg. I am feeling really frustrated, I really need to go for a walk to clear my head.)
We want to help young people develop emotion regulation skills. While children may have a limited vocabulary when describing what they are experiencing, it’s important they do experience a range of emotions to learn how they feel, name what they are, and better understand what they are telling us to inform our needs and actions.
Early education about thoughts and feelings will introduce emotions to your child, and aid them to begin building emotion regulation skills and self-awareness. The conversation can mature when you’re both able to reflect on times of intense emotion and it’s then that you’ll be able to help your child develop an understanding of what they were experiencing, and how to deal with it again in the future.
Be sure to validate what your child is telling you that they’re feeling and going through, and encourage them to talk about why, how, when and where they experience their range of emotions. By letting children know that intense emotions are normal and part of every day life, you’ll help them understand and learn how to manage them.
Here’s a few more conversation starters:
- I can see that _________ (anger/frustration, etc) are challenging emotions for you, but I’m here right alongside you to help work through it.
- You talked about _________ (drawing/playing with friends/sport, etc) as being something that creates positive, ‘feel good’ emotions. Let’s work together to make sure we can do these things more often.
- What are three things that you can do when you are experiencing intense emotions?
Can I suggest a few options?
- You could try doing some deep breathing to calm your body and mind.
- You could listen to some calming music.
- You could do some exercise or go for a walk with a friend.
When we are experiencing severe feelings and emotions, we can sometimes feel a little out of control, or that we are the only person who experiences these feelings. Normalizing the situation helps your child realise that the emotions and feelings they are experiencing are normal and healthy.
You can share your experiences with the same emotions to help normalize your child’s feelings when they’re in a moment of intense emotion. Or, share your thoughts as a part of a reflective conversation after the emotional moment has passed.
As parents we all want the best for our children, but this can lead to certain reactions and responses. Be aware that during or after the conversation, you may:
- Be tempted to tell your child exactly how they should act or respond, and give all of the answers. Instead, ask questions, provide suggestions, and remember that your child is the one who needs to think their way through these moments. Remain curious, supportive, caring and try not to move to a solution too quickly.
- Assume that the conversation went great and that your child now understands everything. Continue to follow up, revisit, reaffirm and re-engage in the conversation over the coming days and weeks. Your child will benefit from close guidance.
- Feel that this was really hard work, and that you have a lot to do in your life, and part of ‘being a kid’ is to work this all out through experience. Intense emotion is typical in the pre-teen and adolescent age due to the physical, social, emotional and neurological changes, so your child will need your consistent guidance to help them remain healthy.
Remember, sadness is one of the most basic human emotions. It’s typically characterized by feelings of unhappiness and low mood, and is a normal response to events, experiences and situations that are painful, upsetting or disappointing. Unlike depression, which is persistent and an illness, sadness is temporary and transitory. Sadness can, however, turn into depression.
If you do believe your child is experiencing depression and/or anxiety, please know that you don’t have to deal with it on your own. Seeking support and getting help early may reduce the impact it has on other parts of your life.
Firstly, seek consultation with your local GP. They’re trained as a first point of contact ot help you understand the situation and understand the support available.
Psychologists and psychiatrists specialize in mental health.
For additional help, please view a list of Mental Health Services & Support Contacts in your local area via our FAQ section.