Helping Children Process Emotions: Sadness

Children sometimes need help learning how to process emotions. We are used to working through anger with them, helping ourselves by limiting tantrums and outbursts, but have you thought about how to help children process sadness? The holiday season can be full of happy memories, family visits, and new gifts, but there can be sad moments too.

What’s sad about the holidays? 

We think of the holidays and, hopefully, focus on building happy memories with family. Maybe your family travels to visit relatives, or they come to visit you. In either case, you’re likely doing things that you don’t do regularly. Those special holiday activities are important to your kids, and when something happens, it can be hard for them to process.

When a cookie breaks, it’s about more than the cookie.

Does your family spend time baking cookies together for the holidays? What happens when a young child drops a cookie they’ve worked hard to decorate? They often cry. To an adult, a broken cookie probably isn’t the worst thing that will happen in a day, but to a young child, it can be overwhelmingly sad. They may cry, they may stomp, they may have a full-on tantrum. It’s our job to help them see that accidents happen, and it can be resolved.

If there are more cookies left, then it’s easy, they can decorate another one. If there are no more cookies left, maybe someone will share it with them. And if sharing isn’t an option, maybe there’s another special treat they can have to help with the sadness. Talk about the cookie together, ask them about it (not in an accusatory tone but rather with genuine concern and compassion while remembering to you it’s just a cookie, but to them, it’s a big deal), discuss options to resolve the situation. Sometimes kids need to know that accidents happen to you too.

Whether you have a new cookie to share or not, allowing the child to be sad, hugging them, reminding them that accidents happen, and it’s OK to be sad about it will help them learn what sadness is and how to process the emotion. Often after a quick discussion, a hug, and a kiss, the kids will go on their way with or without the cookie. They want to know they’re heard and that what’s important to them is important to you too.

What happens when Grandma and Grandpa go Home? 

If you’re visiting with the grandparents during the holidays, the kids are probably getting more attention and extra love. For little children saying good-bye to their grandparents at the end of vacation can be extremely difficult. Young kids may not understand why Grandma and Grandpa have to go home. They may want them to stay longer. Why wouldn’t you? Grandma and Grandpa are often the ones who spoil the kids and give them special treats, extra love, and attention. It can help the kids if you focus on when you’ll see Grandma and Grandpa again next. Sometimes they fear they won’t see them again because they may not remember the last visit or they’ve had so much fun that they can’t imagine not having them around. If you can tell they’re having a hard time, talk to them about it, ask what they’re feeling, ask how you can help them. Reassure them they’ll see their grandparents again (and when, if you know). Let their teachers know if they’re still having a hard time when it’s time to return to school. Their teachers help with emotional support when they’re at school.

What if they don’t receive the toy they wanted? 

This can be a tough situation. Young kids often focus on a particular toy that they want for Christmas, and if you couldn’t find it or decided you weren’t buying it, you may have some disappointment to deal with and need to help the child. Toys are very important to kids, and sometimes if there’s one they want that they don’t get, they can feel like they’re not important or worry that they weren’t good kids if they asked Santa for it and didn’t receive the toy. It’s up to you to help them understand it’s not that they’re a bad kid, they didn’t do something wrong and that it’s OK to be sad about not getting the toy. Help them focus on all the good they experienced with the holidays and what fun toys they did receive. Talk about the toy they didn’t get and if it’s something you’re OK with them having in the future, discuss ways they can help earn money for it (if you’re open to that) or remind them they can ask for it for their birthday or if they got money for Christmas maybe that can be used towards the toy. If you’re not OK with them having the toy, you need to be honest with them and explain why. And know that it’s OK to say no to toys that you don’t agree with or want in your home. Your child won’t be ruined because you say no to something they want. In fact, in the long run, it’s a good thing because they will learn that they don’t get everything they want. Do any of us get everything we want in life? Nope and sometimes that’s a hard lesson to learn.

While the holidays are full of happiness and cheer, there can be moments of sadness for everyone. As parents, we need to help our children name the feeling they’re experiencing and understand that it’s normal; everyone feels it once in a while and help them know how to process the feeling. Talk about the issue they’re having, listen to them, and reassure them. It will help. Emotions can be tough to understand and process with our help; kids can do it easier.

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