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Three strategies children use when dealing with emotions

Three strategies children use when dealing with emotions

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The earlier we are supported to accept our difficult feelings, the easier it will be in the longer term to process and release them. However, because it is part of the human condition to want to avoid pain, there is a common tendency for all of us to develop clever behavioural strategies in order to avoid challenging emotions. It is useful to have some insight into the most common defence patterns that might arise if you or your kids are triggered into those emotions, so that you can support yourself or them to become aware of what is underneath.

Three of the most common strategies to cope with hard feelings are clinginess, overachieving and rebellion. Rather than using all three, most people tend to develop a default strategy, based on their experience of what has worked for them in the past and on their personality type.


Clinginess is typically related to fear. Most of us will have observed our children going through ‘separation anxiety’ typically around the age of two when they start to become conscious of themselves as separate beings and become terrified about it! At this age it is important meet them in their experience and allow them to be with you when they need to be as much as possible. At the same time it can be very helpful to state overtly what is going on, as a way of normalising what feels like a very dramatic experience to them.

Three strategies children use when dealing with emotions


Overachieving is a common strategy for youngsters who don’t believe that they are good enough in themselves. It is a tricky strategy, it attracts a lot of positive attention which can reiterate it as a behaviour and can easily go unnoticed by parents. Of course it is lovely for our kids to do well at things, but if you notice that there is tension or compulsion around achieving, it might be worth exploring a little with your children to identify whether there is anything problematic involved.



Finally rebellion, again it’s tricky, this time because it attracts such negative attention from so many. Rebellion can be expressed from quite a defensive stand such as ‘I don’t care’, again this isn’t the bottom layer of the feeling as underneath every ‘I don’t care’ is a person who deeply cares but who is too scared to.

As a parent, it can be a gift to your children if you can remember to look beneath the behavioural strategies and identify the need that it is trying to meet. It won’t always be easy and it won’t always be clear, but it can be so helpful all round to know that what is being acted out isn’t the whole truth of the situation.









About Jenny Smith

About Jenny Smith

Jenny Smith is a freelance writer and facilitator specialising in mental health, well-being and ecotherapy. She writes for National Mind and The Working Parent and facilitates training in the Work that Reconnects and Ecotherapy. She is inspired by nature, gardening, love and non-duality teachings

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