Wondering how to help your sad child feel less overwhelmed with her feelings and emotions? Learn how to address her sadness in a healthy way.
While kids are born with the ability to feel emotions, they can’t express them verbally or as clearly as we do. We end up with tantrums, confusing behavior, or kids who refuse to talk or communicate because that’s all they know how to express these feelings.
This is true even for a sad child overwhelmed with how she feels.
Maybe she lost a toy, fought with a friend, or watched a sad movie. She did something wrong, didn’t get to do what she wanted, or missed you when you were away at work.
Perhaps it’s even bigger and longer-lasting, like going through a family separation, losing a beloved pet, or moving to a new school.
And other times, you’re not even sure why she’s feeling sad in the first place. But over the last few days, she’s been extra quiet and down about things that would normally make her happy.
6 tips for helping your sad child
Seeing your sad child can bring on a slew of your own feelings. You’re worried something is wrong, especially if she hasn’t snapped out of it in a while. You’d rather see her happy and chipper than sad and gloomy. Maybe you feel like you say the wrong things that only make her feel worse.
It’s enough to make you question whether you’re doing the right thing or messing things up more.
I hear you, friend. Talking to my kids about feelings is a priority of mine. I want them to have a healthy relationship with their feelings, as well as know how to cope with them when they come and go.
Whether you know the reason for her behavior or have no idea why she’s down, you can help your child cope with these sad feelings going through her. Here’s how:
1. Don’t dismiss your child’s sadness
My son and I were walking home from school when he accidentally dropped a leaf as we were crossing the street. “We’ll get more,” I said. I was about to add, “It’s just a leaf,” when I realized that would dismiss his feelings.
While we don’t dismiss major losses like death or divorce, it’s easy to dismiss a broken toy or a forgotten leaf. But however petty or silly these might seem, they can feel like genuine sadness to our kids.
As I say in my book, Parenting with Purpose:
“Brushing aside your child’s emotions makes him feel unimportant, and that his feelings remain unheard and aren’t as valid as someone else’s. Instead, acknowledge his emotions without judging them as petty or insignificant. Fighting with a school friend (even if we know they’ll likely make up the next day) feels just as real to him as it would to you in a similar situation with one of your friends.”
Instead, acknowledge your child’s behavior without judging it as petty or insignificant. Admit that the feeling exists, even if it’s over a dropped leaf.
And listen without judging. This helps build the kind of relationship with her where she can tell you things like a fallen leaf without feeling like you’ll brush it aside. In fact, thank her for telling you how she feels, so she knows you support her no matter what.
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2. Label the feeling
Words are powerful—the simple act of labeling feelings can help your child claim control over her sadness.
She may not be able to articulate the weird sensations of feeling her heart clench, or the desire to be by herself rather than doing fun things. To label and say, “It looks like you’re feeling sad,” can help her identify her sadness and reassure her she’s not alone in feeling this way.
With labeling her feelings, she will also understand that they don’t define her.
She knows she can feel sad without fearing that she’ll feel this way all the time. She won’t blame or fault herself, or assume she’s a bad person because she doesn’t feel happy. She’ll understand that feelings come and go and don’t last forever.
Another benefit of labeling feelings? Doing so tells her you love her no matter what how she happens to feel. That you’ll never withhold your love and affection because she isn’t her usual chipper self, or that she has to be happy just to get your attention.
3. Explain that sadness is normal
Your child might think she’s the only one who gets sad and feel anxious about it. Instead, explain that everyone—including you—feels this way for many reasons. The more you explain how common sadness is, the less she’ll feel isolated and alone. Yes, it’s a difficult feeling, but one we all experience.
Give an example of when you felt sad. You might share a recent disappointment you had, or even your own sad feelings when you were a child like her.
Not only will she know that everyone feels sad from time to time, but that we do so throughout our lives. It can reassure her that her feelings are normal. Just as you and others cope with it, so too can she.
4. Remind your child that the feeling will pass
When we feel sad, it can seem like it’ll never end. Think back to a heartbreak or loss, or even the newborn months when the light at the end of the tunnel didn’t seem like it was shining any time soon. The heightened physical sensations don’t help either, from a clenched stomach to tense muscles.
But, as all feelings do, sadness will pass. Remind your child that sadness doesn’t last forever—that she’ll feel happy again. Think of feelings as seasons, and as all seasons do, they come and go, whether happy or difficult.
5. Don’t rush your child out of her feelings
One of the biggest parenting mistakes we make dealing with a sad child is trying to rush them out of their feelings.
Understandably so—we don’t want them to feel down, and sometimes, witnessing their difficult feelings is hard for us as well. It’s much easier to spend time with them when they’re happy than when they feel sad.
But rushing your child out of her feelings actually delays or suppresses the feelings that need to pass. Yes, we can ease the feelings along, but trying to get it out of the way only makes it linger and doesn’t address the initial problem.
As tempting as it is to distract, coerce, or even threaten her out of her sadness, have the patience not to. Give her space to sort and experience her feelings. As difficult as it is to feel sad, it’s these moments that can teach her so much, so long as you give her the opportunity to learn from them.
6. Offer ways to ease out of sadness
While you don’t want to rush your child out of her feelings, you can provide different ways for her not to feel sad anymore.
Give her a warm hug and soothe her through kisses and reassuring words. Listen without judging, and avoid belittling the things she’s crying about. Instead of saying “It’s just a leaf, we can always get another one,” simply say, “You feel sad you lost that leaf, don’t you? You really liked it and now it’s gone.”
Then, once she’s ready, suggest different ways she can cope with sadness. Ask her if she wants to talk about it or take a walk to find another leaf. Offer sensory comforts like playing with clay dough, sand, or rice. Snuggle up with a blanket at home and simply be together.
And encourage her to find simple pleasures in other ways, such as talking about how delicious her snack is, or that you’ll be going to the park later in the day. While these aren’t meant to erase or dismiss her sadness, simple pleasures can also remind her of other sources of joy in life.
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It’s easy for us to dismiss our children’s sadness as silly, or to tell them to snap out of it and feel happy as soon as possible. Sadness doesn’t work that way, though.
Don’t dismiss your child’s feelings as petty, inconvenient, or unpleasant. Instead, label the feelings so she knows what they are. Explain that sadness is a normal and common feeling everyone goes through. Remind her that it’ll pass, just as all feelings do.
While she feels sad, avoid rushing her out of her feelings, giving her permission to fully experience and observe them on her own time. That said, offer ways to ease her out of sadness, so she knows what she can do to cope the next time.
After all, feeling sad isn’t something to avoid, but to accept, experience, and eventually overcome.
Get more tips:
- 5 Things You Shouldn’t Say When Your Child Loses
- How to Deal when Your Child Cries at Drop Off
- Should Children Attend Funerals?
- Why Time Outs Don’t Work (And What to Do Instead)
- Parenting Mistakes: Judging Your Child’s Emotions
And check out Maybe Tomorrow? by Charlotte Agell, a heartwarming children’s book about sadness, healing, and the power of friendship:
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