This post highlights step-by-step tips to help kids explore overwhelming feelings with a book list to help them get through conflict with a healthy mindset
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Is your kid becoming a bully?
I’m terrified of raising a bully.
I’m prepared to help my kids if they get picked on. They know how to stand up for themselves. They know how to stand up for others. It’s scary, and we’re still cultivating courage and nuance, but they know how to handle outside aggressors.
But what I’m not prepared for is that dreaded call from school – when I hear my son has been throwing tantrums in class, bloodied a kid on the bus, or kicked a teacher.
It’s just so easy, with all of the resources we have, to let our kids feel entitled to everything they have. It’s so easy for them to expect immediate gratification and acquiescence. We have too much and it’s hard to say ‘no’ because it’s so easy to say ‘yes.’
My sons are two years apart, which means the older one tends to call the shots, and his little brother goes along for the ride. Unless I intervene, my youngest just loves to share. He finds joy in backing off, going second, taking the cast-off crumbs. I wish he was a bit more assertive.
They get in fights, but the power structure and responsibilities are clear. It’s easy to maintain peace in our little pack. (Well – relatively easy – they still get into whirlwind fights twelve times a day.)
Teaching your kids to explore and redirect big feelings
So when my eldest hangs out with kids his own age, he’s not used to push-back. He’s not used to going second, taking the smaller half of a cupcake, or not getting his own way. He’s got a steep learning curve ahead.
And despite his easy-going nature, my youngest has a dramatic, the-world-is-ending reaction when his banana falls apart. He’s three. This is normal. And stressful. But also hilarious. Still – this reaction is going to get old if he continues.
I don’t want my kids to dive straight into screaming, kicking, and biting mode when things go wrong. I want them to have a sense of perspective, proportion, and control when those big feelings arise.
Screaming bloody murder through preschool and kindergarten is normal – but if we don’t equip our kids to explore, redirect, and manage those overwhelming reactions, this behavior could turn into something much uglier when they are older – like real violence. Intimidation. Cruelty. Entitlement.
Basically – I need to teach my boys that they are not entitled to 24/7 comfort and luxury. I need to teach them how to handle themselves when things go wrong.
Moving from out-of-control to forgiveness and cooperation
I could shame my kids, or scare them into complicity. STOP CRYING. SHUT UP. YOU ARE BEING A BABY. YOU ARE BEING OVER-DRAMATIC. I mean – that worked for so many generations, including mine!
Except that kind of authoritarian parenting also created a cesspool of toxic behavior. Kids who can’t express hurt – so they get angry. Kids who can’t cry – so they hit.
But what if, instead of just squashing down those awful feelings, we taught kids it’s okay to embrace and explore big feelings? What if we taught our kids (particularly our boys) that crying is better than hitting, and that sadness, anger, and frustration are good feelings?
Validating those negative feelings allows my kids to know they’re not alone. They have a safe place, and safe ways, to express them, and to connect with us about them. They are allowed to remain in control.
From there, forgiveness and cooperation become just a little bit easier.
Books that explore big emotions and redirect harmful behavior
So we’ve established what happens if we don’t take action – I think we’re all in agreement that we don’t want to raise domestic abusers and school shooters. Which means – we’ve got to give our kids the tools to dissolve toxic behavior, and make it clear that they aren’t entitled to take these feelings out on others.
To help kids get through these big emotions with the drywall intact, we’re tackling this step-by-step:
- Validating emotions – letting kids know they have every right to feel the way they do (even if you disagree).
- Labeling emotions – give kids the language they need to use words instead of fists. This helps them bridge the distance between feeling left out at recess and punching a sibling when they get home.
- Expressing emotions – give kids scripts and procedures to vent big feelings in a non-violent way.
- Acknowledging that this is hard – keeping our temper isn’t easy, and it’s misleading to suggest to our kids that they should ‘just’ get a handle and control themselves.
This all sounds like a lot – but it’s actually pretty easy. The books below give us everything we need to start open, non-judgemental conversations with our littles.
Captioned age ranges are for when my sons were able to understand and enjoy each story.
The rest of the images in this post are book covers of titles referenced before the images.]
*Books by makers of color are marked with an asterisk. (#NothingAboutUsWithoutUs & #OwnVoices)
Books That Pack A Big (Emotional) Punch
Do not fight against pain; do not fight against irritation or jealousy.
Embrace them with great tenderness, as though you were embracing a little baby. Your anger is yourself, and you should not be violent toward it. The same thing goes for all of your emotions.
The Most Magnificent Thing has been a perennial favorite in our family for years. I have to admit I’m in love with normalizing a kick-ass girl who invents and innovates, but the story speaks to all of us who experience frustration in the quest for awesomeness. Also it’s adorable.
This book shows my kids that it’s okay to walk away and take a break when things get frustrating. Doesn’t make it easier, but this story illustrates the way we get clumsy and make bad decisions when we’re getting emotional. Also – there’s a some subtle witty jokes in there that I still find funny after reading it a billion times.
It’s okay to have (and express) feelings
This is the moment when they’re introduced to the white horse. Emotional stoicism and self-control are rewarded, and displays of emotion are punished. Vulnerability is now weakness.
Anger becomes an acceptable substitute for fear, which is forbidden.
Let’s talk about male toxicity and White Knight Syndrome, in which we expect men (and women in power) to control displays of emotion and always remain ‘tough.’
We don’t have to do that. This is nonsense, and while it’s demanded of us in school, in the workplace, and in our relationships, it we don’t have to all pretend to be stoic robots – we can change things, and create the world we want our kids to inherit. And it starts with not just letting our kids have big feelings, but by showing big feelings ourselves.
When I’m sad, I name it – “I am really sad right now.” I cry, shamelessly.
When I’m angry, I shout “I HAVE HIT MY LIMIT. I AM REALLY FUCKING ANGRY.” Because swearing is cathartic and frankly, it’s way easier to understand for our family members who can’t read non-verbal body language. We set limits on when and where it’s okay to swear, and we all swear when we need to, and it is lovely.
The following books explore:
- How to redirect feeling of fear, frustration, loneliness, and anger into healthy tears (Tough Guys Have Feelings Too)
- Teach kids how to identify emotion using facial expressions (On Monday When It Rained – don’t let the grouchy cover dissuade you, this little dude is freaking ADORABLE). This kind of exercise identifying expressions with intellectual empathy is vitally important for kids on the autism spectrum and anyone with social disabilities, but it certainly doesn’t hurt for kids who present as neurotypical.
- Giving kids language to label complex emotions in age-appropriate situations they can understand (Sugar Cookies)
- And shows how controlling our actions is hard for everyone at first, but we get there eventually (Spark) – in a decent early-reader chapter book.
- How to be there for a friend when they are having a tough time, and how all types of negative feelings are normal and acceptable. (The Rabbit Listened)
Validating Big Little Meltdowns
‘I thought I was mad, and I am. But mad is complicated. It’s all wrapped up with feeling hurt and scared and sad. Once I notice those things, I don’t feel so mad anymore.’
This is the foundation of anger management. Don’t you wish you’d learned this as a child?
Validating books should be used with caution, but again – it’s a relief to see that we’re not alone.
For kids who take out big feelings on parents, Mad At Mommy provides a mirror for kids to see how projecting negative feelings on to safe people isn’t going to land them in an orphanage, but also shows them what it looks like from the outside. Also it’s adorable to see how pissed this bunny is that his mom won’t marry him. <3
Again! is more for giggles, but shows kids that they’re not alone in sometimes losing their shit, but also helps them get some perspective. Not for everyone, as it sets some terrible examples.
And Cloud’s Best Worst Day Ever is the second-opinion every parent needs when insisting ‘Dude, you need a nap, like, now.’ and shows kids that it’s okay to be mad, but it’s not okay to be mean.
Redirecting Violent Behavior in Toddlers & Preschoolers
If there’s a run-in at the sandbox, you’ll be expected to admit wrongdoing and to say you are sorry even if you’re overcome with feelings of hurt and anger, and to show generosity and cooperation in situations that might well prompt an adult to road rage.
Heading into didactic, admittedly rather boring territory, kids in the under-4 set need their options spelled out for them during a quiet moment when their emotional walls are down.
Slip one of these in between regular story time books, but use them in small doses, they get kinda preachy.
Hands Are Not For Hitting works for very, very young kids, but I’ll admit it’s pretty boring. There’s a few versions of this same story (Teeth Are Not For Biting & Feet Are Not For Kicking), so they’re made to address very specific behavior, and I wouldn’t use them for kids who aren’t already misbehaving.
Calm Down Time includes simple tools and procedures to deal with frustration. It was useful and partially comprehensible at 20 months, but would be best for ages 2-3.
When I Feel Angry is written for younger tots and preschoolers, but the situations in the story are tailored for older kids (like getting picked on in school, which is more of an issue around age 4.) Q didn’t understand it at 20 months, and instead, just ended up copying the bad behavior in the book. But it was also too simple to be engaging for 4+. Best for older preschoolers and kindergartners who can’t sit still through more complex stories.
Exploring conflict resolution in Kindergarten
At 4.5, kid brains typically undergo a great big rewiring, and suddenly they can grasp hypothetical situations. This is where choose-your-own adventure books from the Dealing With Feelings series shines. My kids love flipping through the options in I’m Furious & I’m Frustrated, even though the illustrations are a bit dry and boring.
I’ve actually seen them practice what they learn in these books in real life, and it’s given us some short-hand in resolving conflicts.
For slightly younger kids, Cool Down And Work Through Anger (and Talk And Work It Out) offer a simple, linear set of sample situations that kids are likely to run into in the classroom and on the playground.
August 2020 Update: The original version of this collection included ‘Betty Goes Bananas‘ and ‘Sam’s Pet Temper’ – both of which subtly reinforce and build up anti-Black stereotypes. Even though the books don’t include Black human characters, there are enough cultural links and stigmatization that connects with our white & non-Black POC cultural perceptions of Blackness, in a method called ‘racial coding.’ We go into racial coding in depth over here.
Thanks to Alyssa M. for pointing this out and calling for an update! You can find Alyssa’s comment and a thorough list of resources to learn more below.
Stay Curious, Stand Brave & Breathe Deeply
We can’t control our kids’ behavior, but we can teach them how to take responsibility for their actions. Start now, while it’s still something we can manage with simple picture books. Before it’s too late.
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