2. Managing Difficult Feelings

2. Managing Difficult Feelings


  • In 'What to Expect', we learned about some emotions or behaviours your child may be feeling, and how important it is to take care of yourself.
  • Looking back at the 'noticing feelings' chart, did you notice any symptoms in your child? Were there any patterns in their behaviour? We will learn how to support your child through some of these difficult feelings and behaviours.
  • You can also return to your child's safety plan to add some of the techniques we will learn about in this section. 

This section:

This section will cover how you can help your child manage difficult emotions or behaviours. Perhaps you may have identified some symptoms or behaviours after reflecting on your child’s symptoms.

The key thing is to ensure that your child is supported, has a safe space to be upset and display emotions within limits, and to reassure them that there is no current danger.

We will be covering how you can support your child through:

  • Anxiety/worry

  • Nightmares/difficulty sleeping

  • Anger/defiance/tantrums

Explore the tabs below to learn about helping your child through these feelings and behaviours. Once you have finished reading, you can explore activities you can do at the bottom of the page. 

Anxiety can look like:

  • Developing new fears since the event
  • Becoming very upset when something causes memories of the event
  • Constantly looking for possible threats, being easily startled
  • Intense ongoing fear
  • Physical symptoms (e.g., heart racing, sweating, palpitations)
  • Difficulty sleeping

For example, your child may have experienced a car accident and have a fear around crossing the road or getting into a car. Or they may seem ‘on edge’ or ‘on the lookout’.

Anxiety/feeling worry is a normal part of recovery from a scary incident.

After such experiences, the brain can interpret things connected to the event, or everyday triggers, as if they are directly related to the event.

Feeling on edge, afraid, or worried is the brain’s way of anticipating future danger and protecting one-self.

But worrying can be helpful or unhelpful.

Helpful: e.g., wearing a helmet whilst cycling, safely travelling and crossing the road, being aware of one’s surrounding.

Unhelpful: e.g., being very afraid of going to school, refusing to leave the house.

Your child may not even be aware that something has triggered a trauma-related fear, and emotions or feelings may seem as though have come on suddenly.

It is helpful to be patient with your child and comfort them.

The important things to remind your child are:

  • The scary event has passed
  • The world has not changed
  • They are safe
  • And the more we face our fears, the more our brain can learn that we are safe

Whilst it is normal to want to keep your child safe, and it may be difficult to see them face their fears and feel upset the first few times, too much protection and avoidance of reminders can make it more difficult to get over feeling scared.

You can click on the image below to see some things to keep in mind and what you can say to your child:

Whilst ‘having a go’ at facing fears is the best thing for your child’s emotional recovery, there are techniques you can encourage in the moments when these emotions may be ‘bubbling up’ in.

Your child may experience some really intense physical symptoms, for example:

  • Racing heart
  • Sweaty palms
  • Upset tummy
  • Intense ‘butterflies’ in their stomach
  • Feeling hot

These symptoms can be really uncomfortable and can lead to more anxiety themselves. Children may think that is there is something physically wrong with them, or that something bad will actually happen.

It is important to acknowledge your child’s symptoms and remind your child that:

  • There is nothing ‘wrong’ with them
  • These feelings are normal if you have experienced something frightening
  • This is no evidence that something bad will happen
  • These feelings will pass

There are certain things which can help with these feelings. Let’s take a look at some.

Shifting the Focus 

Shifting your child’s focus away from the physical sensations can interrupt the cycle of fear where the physical feelings themselves may lead to further worries and be seen as confirmation of their fears.

  • Identify what your child is feeling (“What are you feeling? Can you point to where you are feeling this in your body, please?”)
  • Acknowledge and validate the feeling (“Your hands are feeling shaky – that must not feel very nice.”)
  • Move onto another activity (e.g., play a game or do an activity together)

3-3-3 Technique

If your child has difficulty shifting their focus, you can try a simple mindfulness technique called the 3-3-3 technique. Here, you can sit down with your child are name:

  • Looking around and naming 3 things they can see
  • Listening to identify 3 sounds they can hear
  • Moving 3 parts of their body

This can help shift focus away from any unpleasant fear-related feelings.

You can click on the image below to save it and keep as a handy reminder. 

Relaxation techniques can also be helpful and gentle ways to help your child calm down if they are experiencing intense emotions or feelings.

Physical things which can help your child relax include:

  • Going to ‘safe space’ (e.g., their bedroom)
  • Providing physical comfort, if this is something they are comfortable with (e.g., hugs)
  • They can hug a cuddly toy who they can ‘send’ their negative thoughts to
  • A warm drink – perhaps they can help prepare it, and this can help shift the focus away from their body

Box Breathing

A specific technique is ‘box breathing’, or 'square breathing'.

Find a quiet, safe space and try it together.

If they find their attention drifting – that is okay, you can encourage them to pull it back to their breath. This involves….

  • Breathing in for 4 seconds
  • Holding your breath for 4 seconds
  • Breathing out for 4 seconds
  • Pause for 4 seconds

Tense and Relax

The ‘tense and relax’ method can also be helpful for physical sensations. This is a two-step process:

  • Tensing a group of muscles and holding them tight
  • Releasing the hold and leaving muscles relaxed as the tension flows away.

You can use different metaphors to help them understand (e.g., stand straight like uncooked spaghetti and floppy like cooked spaghetti), and move from scrunching eyes shut and down to tensing and wiggling toes.

If your child is thinking unhelpful thoughts (e.g., “I will never be normal again”, “The world is unsafe”), it is important to talk these through and rethink them. Thoughts are really important as they can affect how we feel and what we do.

The good news is that you can encourage your child to ‘talk back’ to the thought and question it.

  • Is the thought realistic?
  • Is it based on fact?
  • Or can you replaced by something more helpful and realistic?

We will cover rethinking unhelpful thoughts in session four.

Your reaction can affect how your child is feeling. This is because children are tuned into the reactions of their parents or other caregiving adults in their life.

So, it is important to be aware of your own worries, low mood, or difficult feelings.

Identifying these are the first important step, and then you can take steps to manage them. This can look like:

  • Talking to others and seeking support yourself to keep your cup from overflowing
  • Reframing unhelpful thoughts (e.g., “It’s all my fault”, or “She will not be the same again”) into more helpful thoughts (e.g., “This was out of my control and I could not have predicted this. But it is over, and we can move on”, or “She is going through a difficult time but she will heal and get better with time”)
  • Focusing on progress and ‘little wins’ (e.g., facing fears, your child’s physical health improving)

Taking care of your own worries is important to ease feelings of guilt you may be having, and to make sure that you are emotionally available to support and nurture your child.


Nightmares are normal after something frightening like an accident or injury has happened.

Your child may experience nightmares relating directly to the event including images or emotions, or they could be completely unrelated to what happened.

It is advised to not wake your child up during a nightmare – wait until it is over and then you can try waking them up. 

When your child is awake:

  1. Comfort your child and let them know that they are safe
  2. Use some relaxation techniques so they are more aware of their environment and calm down a little 
  3. Try some techniques to work through the nightmares

You can read through the tabs below for some things you can do to help your child process the nightmare and how they feel afterwards.

Reassure your child that what they experienced was a bad dream which is now over, and that what happened isn’t real and they are safe.

  1. Ask them how they are feeling
  2. Reassure them that it is okay to feel that way 

For example:That dream sounded very scary and it is normal to feel upset after something like that. But it is now over and you are safe."

This involves sitting down with your child and ‘putting the nightmare away’. This can involve writing it in a journal or on a piece of paper which is put away into a box.

Or, you could draw the nightmare and allow the child to rip it up so it no longer ‘exists’.

Change the scary images into something else.

For example, you can guide your child to:

  1. Imagine the nightmare being on tv (what are they seeing/hearing/feeling?)
  2. Change the channel so the image on the TV turns into something else (perhaps a nice memory, their favourite TV series or a funny image).
  3. Think about the new image. How does this new image feel? What does it look and sound like?

This can help children have some control over their nightmares.

You can download a worksheet to draw the 'Dream TV' with your child. 

Anger and Difficult Behaviours

Some children may display difficult feelings and behaviours (e.g., anger, tantrums, defiance). 

This is a completely normal reaction after a scary experience. 

Often, children may get angry, break rules, and have tantrums because they are scared, or they may not be able to communicate what they are feeling or thinking.

This can be difficult for you as a parent as there are two things to balance here:

  • Knowing that these behaviours may be coming from a place of upset and anxiety
  • Setting clear boundaries and expectations of good behaviour.

Research has shown that effective parenting includes warmth and consistent parental control. 

Firstly, make sure that the basics are covered.

  • Has your child eaten? Are they hungry?
  • Have they slept enough?
  • Have they had enough exercise?

These basic needs are really important when it comes to preventing difficult behaviours like angry outbursts or tantrums. 

But, it is totally understandable if your child is experiencing some difficult and intense feelings after going through a scary experience. Research tells is that this is completely normal. 

If all the basics are met and your child is still feeling angry, it is important to remain calm and compassionate. Try to understand where they are coming from, and be a soothing and safe presence. 

For example, try these phrases:

  • It's okay to feel this way. 
  • How can I help?
  • I understand why you feel this way.
  • I'm here if you need me. 

When angry outburts happen, there are a few things you can do:

  1. Take control of the situation. Try to maintain a firm but calm tone of voice.
  2. Once things have calmed down, you can take the chance to talk about why they felt that way.
  3. Tell them you understand how they are feeling. 
  4. But, maintain previous expectations of behaviour. Communicate that aggressive or angry outbursts are not a helpful way of expressing emotions. 
  5. Do a calming and enjoyable activity to take the attention away from those difficult feelings.

Tip: It can also be helpful to verbally praise them when they show feelings of self-control if they manage to overcome these feelings or behaviours in the future. 

This can be really challenging. Children may lash out at others because something may be bothering them, or they are experiencing some overwhelming feelings.

Sometimes these intense behaviours can be calls for help. 

In the moment, it is important not to overreact. Make sure to:

  1. Respond quickly.
  2. Make sure the other sibling is okay.
  3. Help your child 'surface' the difficult feelings.
  4. Remain calm and try to empathize e.g. "That was hard. Your sister was crying. I can see you felt bad. Tell me about it."
  5. Create a safe space. e.g. "I wonder if it's hard for you after what happened..."

This could take a while and they may get angry, but it is important to remain calm. Your child should know that what they did was not okay, but they are in a safe space to talk through any feelings. 

Time-out can be a useful tool if you use it correctly and consistently. 

It can be a way to temporarily remove the child from the situation and the attention which may be making the feelings more intense.

But, it is important that time-out is not overused and that your child is aware of:

  • Why they are receiving time-out.
  • The situations in which it will be used.
  • How long it will last.
  • After the time is over and your child is feeling calmer, praise them for calming down and re-entering the situation.

Situations when time-out can be used include:

  • Aggressive or harmful behaviours (e.g., hitting, screaming, kicking).
    Non-compliance with specific commands (e.g., refusing to clean up, or brush their teeth).
    Dangerous behaviours (e.g., running in the street).

However, this can be a tricky thing to do without proper guidance, especially after your child has experienced a scary event or injury. So, this should not be the first response if your child displays difficult behaviours. 

Time-out should be used for specific behaviours and must be consistent. 

Things to keep in mind:

  • 3 minutes is recommended for most children.
  • Choose an environment with minimal stimulation (e.g., no TV or toys) or where minimal damage can be done. 
  • The time-out space must be a safe space for a child to calm down. 

After time-out, approach them calmly. 

For example:

  • "You are sitting quietly, are you ready to get up?"
  • "Are you ready to put your toys away?"

After time-out, make sure to verbally praise your child for positive behaviour (e.g., "Thank you so much for putting your toys away.")

This positive interaction promotes bonding and emotion regulation.

It is important that your child is aware that their actions have consequences. For example, if they throw a tantrum, make a mess, or upset someone else.

It can be helpful to have consequences for outbursts and difficult behaviours, but these should not be out of proportion to their behaviour and should be consistent.

For example:

  • If they throw a tantrum and throw something or make a mess, tell them that they have to help clean up if they are old enough.
  • Angry outbursts may be assigned with some time-out to calm down.

There may be common 'tantrum triggers'. For example, being asked a question about what happened or going to school.

Whilst certain things like going to school cannot be avoided in the long-run parents and caregivers can help defuse the situation.

The first step is to anticipate the potential triggers.

This can look like giving your child more warning about a certain task, or structuring certain activities in ways that reduce the likelihood of a tantrum.

For example, giving a warning time before a task ends (e.g., “We’re leaving in 10 minutes” before leaving home).

For example, you could break down intimidating tasks into smaller chunks. You can reward your child for achieving this small 'wins' and for controlling their anger in small, manageable chunks of time. 

Gradually, you can increase the time spans and broad the situations. 


Summary and Activities

In this section, we learned about some strategies you can use if your child is feeling worried, feeling angry or behaving difficulty, and having nightmares. There are some simple techniques to:

  • Help them relax or take their attention away from unhelpful thoughts or emotions (e.g., the 3-3-3 technique or box breathing)
  • Manage defiant or angry behaviour (e.g., appropriate time-out)
  • Supporting your child after a nightmare


Below are a couple of activities you can try to build a toolkit of the techniques we learned about, and how to process and move on from nightmares

Please click on the links below to learn more about these techniques. 

Activity one: Building an emotional toolkit

Activity two: Dream rescripting