I Don’t Know What’s Wrong – 5 Steps to Dealing with Big Emotions

This time it was the traumatic experience of misplacing a sliced up kiwi that sent my ten-year old in to a flurry of emotion. Everything was bad because of that kiwi, I had no idea that a kiwi could be so powerful – did you?

I remember having those big feelings, the wall of emotion that would overwhelm you and block out the sun in a way that made you blind to anything good going on around you.  I remember getting fixated on that one block of terribleness that was all that I could think about. On this day, it was all about a missing kiwi.

These are the stories that when we have a moment to step back, we can giggle at together and I try to do everything I can to help her through those big emotions, even suggesting that it’s not actually about the kiwi.

“Honey, these are really big feelings over a kiwi. I feel like it might not be all about the kiwi. What else is going on?”

“I don’t know what’s wrong, mom. I’m just sad.”

Ugh. Like a punch to the gut, that’s the one thing that I want to be able to rescue my daughters from – feeling like you’ve lost control and ‘sad’ is all you can attach to.

I’ve spent the last three years intentionally working on the relationship with my oldest. I felt like we weren’t connecting at all and it scared me.  Where does a teenage daughter turn when she doesn’t feel like she can turn to her mom?  That thought scares me. Really scares me.  So I set out a plan to be more present, to laugh more with her and to take moments to connect with her.  Small things, but they made a big difference.

So today, when I see the tears welling up over a missing kiwi, my Dr. Mom hat goes on and I start with a giant dose of a big, warm hug.  Touch is an amazing medicine. It creates a chemical reaction in the body that can bring us back to the present moment, rather than focusing on that awful thing.  It creates enough space so that you can help walk through those emotions and sort through them, like the memory balls in Inside Out.  This is sadness, it goes here. This is anger, it goes here. This is lonely, it goes here.  Sorting through those feelings until you get to the bottom and you can help your child find themselves amidst all those emotions.

Here’s some simple steps to help sort through those feelings:

  1. Lead with compassion – it doesn’t matter what the real problem is, it’s real and painful to your daughter, so start with a hug or a gentle hand to the shoulder. Use a physical gesture of compassion to establish your presence in the moment with her.
  2. Help her find her words – feelings are complicated enough once we know who we are, but when you are only beginning to develop a strong sense of self, those feelings can make little sense.  Lead with, “so it sounds like something is really weighing on your mind. Do you think it’s all because of <insert the small trigger incident here> or is there more going on?
  3. Listen – whenever she finds her words, let her use them. Be present and hear what she is saying. Listen for cues to how she is interpreting her own emotions and use those cues to dig deeper.
  4. Help her see other options – sometimes just being able to release some of the tension that builds up when strong emotions collect is enough, but other times knowing where to go next helps to pick yourself up again.  Ask questions like, “What would it take to make this okay?” and “what are the choices we have about this situation?”, “what can I do to help you?”
  5. Recognize her growing emotional intelligence – it’s a huge competency.  When a child learns how to recognize and control her emotions, they have a skill that will set them up for success.  Use every opportunity to point out how tricky emotions can be and how amazing it is that she is so willing to sort through hers so that she can get to the good stuff.

Nothing feels better than helping them find their own cure.


If you are interested in learning more about communicating and dealing with emotions with your daughter – register for the next Girls Change the World Workshop at www.GirlsChangingtheWorld.com – a full day workshop where mothers and daughters learn how to communicate, sort through those feelings and release their own inner self.