Simple Solution for Over-Emotional 4-Year-Old

A mother asks how to help her daughter control her emotions without repressing them.

Dear Susan,

Our 4-year-old is, and has always been, a highly emotional child; crying infant, screaming toddler and now she cries about EVERYTHING!!! We've tried every strategy we can think of to fix this problem but nothing seems to work. It is important to us that she feels free to express her feelings but we also want her to learn how to control her emotions.

How can we handle her behavior?  We have a baby in the house and it's all getting to be just too much!

Hopeful in Atlanta

Dear Hopeful,

I have a great solution!

You're right.  Feeling free to express emotions in an appropriate manner and at appropriate times is a good for children (and adults).  And, at 4 years old, it's time for your child to how to manage her emotions.  Remember, emotions are neither good nor bad.  They just are emotions.

However, it is not appropriate to express any emotion at any time.  Imagine if adults didn't have self-control in relation to our emotions.  I'd be sobbing in the grocery line because of a touching headline on a magazine cover, someone else would be stomping their feet and throwing things in the bank line because it's taking too long, etc.  My illustrations may seem ridiculous but if your daughter doesn't learn how to manage her emotions, my illustrations are possible (and you may even know an adult who acts like a toddler!).

On to the solution:  First, I'd try simply telling your daughter, upon an outburst, "Darling, this is not something to cry over," and walk away.  I'd make it no big deal.  You daughter may simply need to be told where the boundary is.  After a week or two of this strategy you should see some improvement.  If not, your daughter may have developed a habit of being overly-emotional.  In that case, you will have to break her habit by bringing in "The Doctor."

Tell your daughter "Darling, your father and I have been concerned with your emotional outbursts.  We have tried to help you manage your emotions by telling you that some things aren't worth crying over but we have failed.  So, we went to see the doctor.  He said that 4-year-olds who cry the way you do are sleep deprived.  That means you need to sleep more.  Therefore, your bedtime is now 6:30, right after dinner, weekends included.  If you stop crying at every little thing after 2 weeks, then your bedtime can be 7 p.m.  After 2 weeks, if you manage your emotions, then we know you are getting enough sleep and your bedtime can be moved to 7:30.  We will keep making your bedtime later, up to 8 pm, as long as you are able to manage your emotions. We know that change is hard so we will give you three 'outburst tickets' per day.  When you have an outburst, you have to give us one of your tickets.  If you lose all three of your tickets before bedtime,  you have to go to your room immediately for the rest of the day."

The above prescription WORKS!  I've seen it work over and over.  The reason it works is because of one simple principle:  We cannot make others change.  People change only because THEY want to change!  Framing the solution this way puts your daughter in control of her problem and since she is really the only one who can solve her problem, she'll change.

A note about tickets:  The tickets allow a margin of error for your daughter as she is learning the new skill of managing her emotions without giving her carte blanche to continue the misbehavior.

Follow up:  After a week, reduce the tickets to 2 per day.  After 2 weeks, give her 5 tickets per week.  After 3 weeks, 3 tickets per week.  By the 4th week of this program, you will see a dramatic improvement in the outbursts!

I know this is a lot to swallow so feel free to e-mail me for clarification.

Good luck (and it really does work!)


Susan Eppley,

Certified Master Leadership Parenting Coach



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Meg Clark July 14, 2012 at 08:18 PM
I can attest on a short/small term basis-- we have kids at my Camp who will wail and throw fits over a bee flying in their vicinity or a stubbed toe. We tell them it's not that big of a deal, they're fine, and if they need to take five minutes they can but after that they have to go out and play with everyone else. After a couple of weeks, they start to realize that it can be done!
Susan Eppley August 08, 2012 at 01:50 PM
Thanks, Meg. It really does work!


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