Is your child being particularly challenging? Picking fights? Melting down? Here’s why and what you can do about it.

Help your child be happier and more cooperative by helping them empty their emotional backpack. 

Any of these scenarios familiar? 

Your child screams, “Not the red one! I wanted the blue one!” No matter what you offer, it’s not the right thing.

You cut the muffin in half and it’s like the world has ended.

Your child KNOWS to leave the cat alone but they look right at you and pull the poor cat’s tail.

Your child is whining incessantly about EVERY.LITTLE.THING.

We all- our children included- experience difficult emotions every day. 

Maybe you have a new baby and your child is feeling replaced. Maybe they missed you while they were at daycare. Maybe they are a sensitive soul and can pick up on some marital tension. Maybe they are spirited and the feelings of being powerless are overwhelming. Maybe their friend wouldn’t play with them at recess, and you said no iPad today.

When we welcome and allow feelings, they will pass. If someone says something rude to us, and we take a moment and feel the hurt and breathe through it, we can let it go. If we have to say no to an ice cream and we can let our child cry over the disappointment, they can cry a bit and then wipe their tears and go on with their day. This is emotional resilience: the ability to feel our feelings and recover after a setback.  

If we don’t accept our feelings (or our child’s) or don’t feel safe to feel them in the moment, they can build up inside us. When we can’t feel and express (process) difficult feelings, they go underground and out of our conscious control. We hold them in our bodies until they can surface and be healed.

In peaceful parenting, we refer to the feelings held in our bodies as the emotional backpack. (The emotional backpack is a concept developed by my mentor Dr. Laura Markham.)

That hurt you didn’t allow yourself to feel, or that disappointment you don’t allow your child to feel, gets stuffed down in the emotional backpack.

How can you tell if your child has a full backpack?

A child with a full emotional backpack (or an adult!) will be whiny, demanding, rigid, bossy, easily upset and looking to fight. All those difficult feelings are swirling around inside and looking for a way out and to be healed.

If your child is misbehaving, they are literally acting out all the difficult feelings they have stored inside. They are trying to offload all the uncomfortable feelings. (Maybe you can relate: Have you ever had a bad day and come home and picked a fight with your partner?)

If we, as adults, come home after a hard day at work, we have lots of options for processing our day. (If we can avoid picking that fight!) We can talk to a friend or partner about our day, write in our journals, or just reflect on the day and its challenges. Our rational minds are well developed enough to do this. Younger children can’t process feelings intellectually yet and they often need our help to get the feelings out.

Being difficult is often a sign that your child needs your help to let those feelings out. How do we help our children empty their emotional backpacks?  

As Dr. Markham says, “Since both tears and laughter help us discharge… emotion, help your child to play when she can and cry when she has to.”

1. First, recognize that your child is doing the best they can. They need your help! They’re not giving you a hard time, they’re having a hard time. They don’t know how to manage all the big feelings.

2. Get laughing. If you sense that your child has a full backpack, get them laughing! (note: if they are already really upset, it’s likely too late for this strategy. Move on to the next! If they’re just being difficult and grumpy, try this!)

Laughter helps us empty our backpacks by changing our bodies’ chemistry (reducing stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, and creating feel-good chemicals such as endorphins and serotonin.)

Laughter relaxes our muscles and eases tensions.

Laughter stimulates our bodies to produce oxytocin, which promotes bonding and helps your child feel closer to you.

Get silly. Do some roughhousing. Play a game of chase. Follow the laughter! (Roughhousing challenged? I have lots of roughhousing ideas from other parents in my Special Time guide.)

This is an especially effective tactic for preventing the after-school meltdown!

3. If your child is still being difficult, invite the tears.

When you have the time and bandwidth, set a limit with kindness. “No, sweetie, I won’t give you a new muffin right now.”

Meet your child’s upset with so much empathy and compassion. “I know. This is so hard. You didn’t want me to cut the muffin. It’s not what you wanted. I understand. Sometimes you just need to cry. Come here, sweetheart.”

My mentor calls this a “scheduled meltdown.” When you are able to be present and compassionate, you’re helping them let out all those tears and fears that were stuffed in the backpack. Set a limit with kindness and welcome the tears!

(Yes, this takes time and sometimes you just have to get out the door. Give them a cookie to get in the car seat and make a promise to yourself to help them with the feelings in their backpacks later.)

It’s important to note that your child doesn’t have to cry about what’s in their backpack and you don’t even have to know what’s in their backpacks. They just need to cry. (Have you ever watched a sad movie at the end of a hard week and bawled your eyes out? It was a sad movie, but not THAT sad! You were emptying your emotional backpack.)

You can even ‘milk’ an injury to get your child to cry. “Oh my goodness, you hurt your knee. Look it’s red. That must have hurt so much, darling. Let me hold you.” We can cry about anything and empty out those emotional backpacks. We just need to cry.

(want to join me for a virtual workshop? Check out ‘Tame Tantrums and End Power Struggles’)

These big feelings can be hard for us as parents. Most of us have a hard time with emotions. We are tempted to tell them to ‘suck it up, Buttercup’ (shut down those feelings!) or offer a new muffin (make those feelings go away.)

Take some deep breaths and remind yourself that these feelings will pass. Your child can handle it and YOU can handle it. Experiencing big feelings in the safety of your loving presence is what enables your child to develop emotional resilience. In fact, how well you can support and tolerate your child’s suffering is the degree to which they will become resilient. Crying in the presence of someone you love is healing. Feelings are not an emergency.

What if your child lashes out or gets angry?

It’s important to remember that there is no anger in the emotional backpack. Anger is a secondary emotion. The best defense is a good offense, right? That’s why when someone says something mean and hurts our feelings, we are much more likely to strike back than to say, “wow, that hurt.”

The anger or lashing out is also the “fight” response to the overwhelm of big feelings. Those vulnerable feelings coming out of the backpack feel just as scary as when they went in- which is often why we stuffed them in the first place. When we feel overwhelmed, we go into fight-flight-freeze. This is why kids with full backpacks often ask for screens and sugar. (And as adults why most of us have our own little addictions- to our phones or to overworking or overeating.)

If your child lashes out, make sure they feel seen, heard and acknowledged. “I know. You really didn’t want me to cut your muffin. You are so sad and mad about it.” Empathize: “I understand. It feels terrible.” (For more on responding to aggression, check out this post.)

If you’re having a hard time empathizing over a muffin being cut in half, try to connect to the feelings underneath. We have all felt deeply disappointed, or misunderstood, or powerless. 

And remember: It’s not usually about the muffin. It’s about all the feelings in the backpack. The muffin is the catalyst. The more compassionate we can be, the easier it is for our child to get to the softer feelings and tears under the anger.

If your child can’t cry? Keep trying. Increase the daily laughter and Special Time. Some kids have a hard time letting go. You can even say, “Sometimes we just need to cry.”

This is such hard work! The payoff: After a good cry, your child will be happier and more cooperative, and you will have had a wonderful opportunity to grow closer to your child as you support them. 

****For more on tantrums- join me for a virtual workshop! To continue the discussion, join my peaceful parenting FB group.

Sarah Rosensweet is a peaceful parenting coach and parenting advice columnist for Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper. She lives in Toronto with her husband and three big kids (ages 12, 15, and 18). Sarah teaches parents a non-punitive, connection-based approach that uses firm limits with lots of empathy. Enjoy your kids again!

Find her at sarahrosensweet.com