How to Respond to Emotional Children


Many children have trouble leaving preferred places and activities. There are times you can’t even take them to a neighborhood park for fear of that awful moment when you have to leave and return. Kids can be unpredictable and erratic. Sometimes they’ll scream and fall to the ground, or try to run into a busy street to get away from you, or lash out to hit.

One thing that can be immensely helpful is using Minute Warnings/Timers: Your child may need a 5 minute, 2 minute, or 1 minute warning before there is a change of activity. These warnings help the children prepare for the transition. They will begin to learn that the warning comes and then the change comes. Eventually, the minute warnings become routine, even if the next task is not.

Set a timer on a phone.

“In five minutes you need to take a bath.”
“In two minutes we are leaving the park.”

This helps an emotional child feel more in control without controlling you. When the timer goes off you have to carry through every single time. Do this continuously for two weeks and you’ll start to see results. Set your boundaries, stick to them, and follow through. But let the child know in advance to lessen anxiety and prepare them for what’s next.


Many tantrums are over wanting something they can’t have at that moment. A toy, a snack, a trip somewhere RIGHT NOW. Or perhaps there is something they DON’T want to do. For many of these situations use first/then. “First___, then____” statements are used to help a child finish a task before getting something motivating.

“First we finish our lunch, then we can go outside.”
“First we will clean up, then we can go to the park.”

Depending on your needs and your child’s skill set, you can do this verbally, use pictures, or write items on a dry erase board.

Many children with autism think in pictures, so that is often the initial go to method.

It’s a simple phrase that provides structure in a child’s mind and helps them follow the directions at hand. It can help decrease an emotional child’s frustration because they can understand exactly what is expected of them. It can take about two months for a child to understand that they will get what they want as long as they FIRST did what was asked of them. For younger children who do not yet have the same understanding of language still use this language because one day when they do grasp it they will understand the importance of it sooner than other kids.


Reinforcing language identifies and affirms children’s’ specific positive actions and encourages them to continue their appropriate behavior. For example, to a child that shared their swing at the park you might say, “I really like how you shared and played so nicely with that little boy at the park.” It’s especially important to recognize behaviors that a child usually struggles with- sharing, being quiet, following directions. With these words, the adult lets the children know that their positive behaviors were noticed.

Continually point out good behaviors in areas a child struggles. “I like how you are sharing your truck with Parker.” “Good job cleaning up your blocks Parker.” Recognizing good behaviors increases the likelihood that they will happen again. In an environment with small children you are frequently saying: no, put that down, don’t do that, put that back, you can’t have that- you can’t eat that, NO NO NO NO-sometimes it’s so nice to recognize and focus on the good. Praise is one of the best reinforcers around.

For some children- praise means nothing. It’s not rewarding, therefore, it does not increase the good behavior. In this case you must find something that IS rewarding. Sometimes a small reward is offered- a piece of candy or a token or sticker that when accumulated can be used towards a greater reward. I’ve heard some people say, “I don’t like to bribe my child.” To me- it’s like getting a pay check for work. We all work for the reward, whether it be emotional, financial, edible or tangible.


How many of you have screamed at your emotional child, STOP SCREAMING?!! Minimize the use of ‘don’t’ and ‘stop.’ For example, ‘Walk on the sidewalk’ can be much more effective than ‘Don’t walk on the grass’ for a child who might not hear the ‘don’t’—or for one who isn’t sure where the acceptable place to walk might be. This lets the child know exactly what you WANT them to do. ‘Stop screaming’ becomes, ‘Quiet please’, ‘Don’t color on the table’ becomes ‘Only color on the paper’.

There are times when there’s NO WAY around a don’t/stop statement. DON’T COLOR ON THE DOG. STOP HITTING YOUR BROTHER. Use your best judgment. There will be times you have to ignore screaming and tantrums as when a child is mad because you gave one of their toys to a peer when they didn’t want to share. Then there are times when you praise them, “Great job being quiet and playing with your cars.”

It can feel a little weird at first, ignoring a child while they are screaming or throwing themselves on the ground. But when they do that, they are attention seeking and giving them any kind of attention reinforces that behavior. They will learn it doesn’t work and realize they get more attention when their behavior is good.


This one can be especially hard because what usually happens is a child goes out of control and then the adult quickly follows. It’s exhausting, draining and frustrating. Take deep breaths and make sure your words sound calm, even if you’re not feeling it. Remind yourself that you are the adult and if you expect the child to modify their behavior then you must too. Children don’t always have the language to explain what they want and need and that can be extremely frustrating for them. Most of all remember to be calm and patient and lead by example.

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