Emotional Upset

Emotional upset-whether anger, sadness, or fear-is a normal response to different stresses in a child’s life. Children may not be able to express in words exactly what it is they are feeling. Instead, they may show their feelings by acting out in anger, by withdrawing, or by displaying physical symptoms such as vague abdominal pain, fatigue, or headache. Physical signs of stress can also include dizzy spells; a racing pulse; sweaty palms, feet, or face, not associated with physical activity; chronic headaches; trembling; hives; and insomnia.

The behavior or response you see may not seem to match or articulate the underlying feeling, but it is usually the best way available to the child to express himself in that situation. When a child says, “I hurt,” a parent should, of course, explore the physical symptoms, but also be sure to take time to explore whether the pain is actually an emotional hurt. Instead of focusing only on the anger or physical symptom your child displays, look for the deeper emotional need that may be giving rise to it. Help your child verbalize his feelings to ask for what he is really wanting or needing. For example, by saying, “It seems that there is something that you want or need right now. Do you know what that is?” or, “What are you hurting about?” you may be able to get beyond the immediate behavior or illness to a deeper concern or need. It also helps the child know that you are available and that you care about him. Be willing to be patient, listen, and help your child express what he is feeling. Sometimes all a child needs is to feel heard and to be acknowledged. Instead of quickly “kissing and making it all better,” sit with your child, hold him, and acknowledge his hurt. Tell him, “I see that you are hurting,” or, “I hear that you are needing more of my time,” or, “You’re right, it is so sad that that happened.” Acknowledging your child’s feelings, and helping him to articulate those feelings, may be one of the greatest gifts you can offer as a parent. It helps to build a child’s self-esteem.

Children thrive in an environment that feels safe and secure, and in which they
receive plenty of love, support, and guidance. Any major change, instability,
or ongoing conflict will have an impact. Don’t assume that a child doesn’t know about family stresses unless you tell him. In fact, it is more realistic to assume that a child does know about whatever stresses there are in the family, and needs support to deal with what he is feeling. Children are like very sensitive weathervanes. They have a natural ability to pick up on feelings, conflicts, or changes in their environments. Using language your child can understand, talk about changes or conflicts in the family. Help your child to understand what is really happening so that he does not need to guess or imagine. The explanations children come up with on their own are often more frightening than the reality.

If, after you have identified a problem and addressed it in the most
compassionate and complete way you know, your child’s emotional upset or
behavior seems unchanged or even worse, or if it is disrupting the family or
his ability to function at school, it is time to seek further help. In the
event of certain traumatic situations, such as a divorce or a death in the
family, it is beneficial to seek counseling for your child regardless of how he seems to be handling the problem. Group or individual counseling can help your child learn to understand and express his feelings appropriately.

More long-term and complicated emotional and behavioral disorders, such as violence and aggression, drug abuse, depression, developmental disabilities, ant learning disabilities, are beyond the scope of this book. Signs of a more serious problem include violent or aggressive behavior; withdrawal from the family; a drastic change in usual behavior; an unwillingness to talk; changes in eating habits; an inability to sleep or sleeping much more than usual; deteriorating school performance; continuous conflict with parents, teaches, or pees; difficulty making friends; and chronic tearfulness or apathy. If you suspect a serious or chronic emotional or behavioral problem, consult your child’s teacher, school guidance counselor, or physician. Your child and/or your family may need professional help.

Children need emotional support and guidance throughout their lives as the challenges and tasks they face continue to expand and change. Part of your responsibility as a parent is to stay current and aware of your child’s needs so that you can support his emotional health.

Sources of Stress in Your Child’s Life

Adults are often inclined to think of childhood as a happy time, free of stresses and concerns. Children’s problems may seem minor-perhaps even “cute”-in comparison with their own. Parents should always remember, however, that as far as a child is concerned, the problems of childhood are serious indeed, and that they pose real challenges to a child’s emotional resources.

Below is a list of some of the possible sources of stress that may cause emotional upset and resulting behavioral changes in your child. Realizing that these situations can create upset for your child gives you the opportunity to support your child throughout the situation-in preparation for, during, and after the transition or difficulty.

  • Death of a close family member.
  • Death of a friend.
  • Death of a pet.
  • Parental fighting.
  • Divorce of parents.
  • Moving, even if only to a new neighborhood in the same town.
  • Best friend moving away.
  • Changing schools.
  • Pregnancy of mother.
  • Birth of a new sibling.
  • Parent with a new girlfriend or boyfriend.
  • Remarriage of a parent.
  • Parent losing a job.
  • Financial troubles in the family
  • Illness of a close friend or family member
  • Holidays.
  • Bullies at school.
  • First day of school
  • Going away to camp.
  • Beginning a new grade.
  • Spending the night away from home, especially for the first time
  • Fight with a friend
  • Peer pressures, particularly in adolescence with drugs, smoking, drinking, sexuality.
  • Threat of war, including the threat of nuclear war.

Conventional Treatment

A family physician, pediatrician, or pediatric nurse practitioner is a good resource for helping parents understand developmental stages and healthy emotional responses. These professionals can provide important information and guidance for facing the challenges that might be coming up in a child’s life and helping you to support your child through these transitions. They can also help you sort out the difference between a normal response and behavior that may signal an emotional problem needing further exploration and intervention. A doctor or nurse practitioner can refer the family to a counselor, a learning specialist, or appropriate community resources. Many naturopathic physicians are also extensively trained in counseling.

Dietary Guidelines

Limit your child’s consumption of foods containing refined sugars and caffeine, both of which can cause mood swings.

Food allergies and sensitivities can cause or
contribute to mental and emotional difficulties such as anxiety, depression,
hyperactivity, irritability, and difficulty concentrating. Use an elimination
diet or a food diary to track down food allergies and sensitivities
(see Elimination Diet).

Dealing With Temper Tantrums

Alexis Augustine, child therapist and author, offers the following information and advice regarding children’s temper tantrums.

A temper tantrum is an outburst or violent demonstration of anger or frustration. Temper tantrums get our attention. The behavior of a child during a temper tantrum can range from crying and sobbing to screaming, shrieking, and throwing himself on the ground. Tantrums can happen in the middle of the grocery store, when you have company over, or when you really need that quiet moment to yourself. The most important thing to understand about temper tantrums is that they happen for different reasons and need to be dealt with in different ways.

There are three basic categories of temper tantrums.

  1. Some tantrums occur because small children are unable to contain strong emotions, such as disappointment, frustration, or anger. They are still learning how to cope with their feelings. This type of tantrum can occur when a child gets overtired or overstimulated; children are more vulnerable at these times. Having a tantrum then is a way for a child to discharge the tension that has built up in his body. A child who is having this type of tantrum is not using his behavior to manipulate you; he simply cannot contain the strength of his emotions. If this is the case, it is important to maintain contact with the child at this time and help him feel safe. He is out of control, and that can feel scary. Also, children need to learn that they are loved even though their behavior is not always “nice.” An effective way to support a child who is having this kind of tantrum is to hold him or sit with him while he is going through it.
  2. Another type of tantrum may occur if a child is not allowed to show anger or feelings that occur naturally. Children do not have the control over their emotions that adults have. They naturally have strong feelings, and for the sake of their emotional health they must be allowed to express these feelings and learn from them. When a child is not allowed to say that he is angry, an outburst of bottled-up feelings can be the result.
  3. Finally, a child may have a tantrum to try to exert control over a situation or another person, whether that means getting his way about which game to play or postponing his bedtime. Children are in the process of learning about getting their needs met. They need guidance in learning the best, most direct, and most appropriate ways to do this. If having a tantrum seems to work, a child may conclude that it is a viable way to get what he wants. If a child is having this type of tantrum, it is a good idea to acknowledge the child’s feelings, but not to acquiesce to his demands. For example, if a child has a tantrum when his friends want to play a different game than he does, you might tell the child you understand that he wants to play something else, but then have him move to a safe place to have his tantrum. When he’s finished, have him come back to join in playing. This way, he will realize that having a tantrum is a waste of time; he isn’t getting what he wants, and besides, everyone else is having fun without him. A child having this type of tantrum is testing the limits on his behavior. A firm but matter-of-fact response is an effective way to deal with it.

When dealing with a child’s temper tantrum, keep the following points in mind.

  • Children need help in learning effective coping strategies.
  • Children need to learn a variety of ways of coping, so that they don’t have to rely on just one. If they know only one coping mechanism, and that one doesn’t fit the situation they’re in, they won’t know what to do.
  • Shaming or embarrassing children for their behavior undermines their confidence.
  • Talking with children about their behavior is more effective once everyone has calmed down.
  • Self-regulation is age related. Children get better at it as they get older. It helps to have patience.

Herbal Treatment

For age-appropriate dosages of nutritional supplements, see Dosage Guidelines for Herbs and Nutritional Supplements.

Chamomile tea helps calm and ease stress and tension. Give your child one dose of tea as needed.

Oat straw is nourishing and calming to the nervous system. This herb is helpful for a child who is dealing with stressful emotions over an extended period of time. Give your child one dose of oat straw tea, twice a day, as needed.

Skullcap is helpful for nervousness and anxiety and the headaches that often follow. Give your child one dose daily for up to two weeks.

Note: This herb should not be given to a child less than six years old.


When your child is distressed, the appropriate symptom-specific homeopathic remedy will likely be very helpful. Choose the remedy that matches your child’s symptoms from the list that follows. Unless otherwise indicated, give your child one dose, three times a day, for up to five days.

Give Aconite to a child who is fearful and anxious, especially if the feeling came on suddenly. This child may be very restless and sensitive to noise, smell, and touch. He feels better outdoors and worse in a warm, closed room. Give one dose of Aconite 200x when needed.

Arsenicum album 30x or 9c will ease a child who acts restless and fussy and is afraid of being alone. This child may obsessively organize his room when feeling insecure.

Chamomilla 30x or 9c is good for an angry child who is upset, who insists on being held, and whose temper flares when you put him down.

Cina is for the angry, contrary, and ill-tempered child who does not want to be touched or hugged. This is the type of child who will ask for a toy and then toss it away in front of your nose. (He may pick his own nose constantly as well.)

Colocynthis 30x or 9c is helpful for a child who complains of a stomachache after being angry.

Ignatia 30x or 9c is especially helpful after a loss, emotional trauma, or disappointment. Grief associated with the death of a parent or grandparent, breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, or moving to a new town will be eased by Ignatia. It is helpful for a child who is quiet and tearful. This is a child who sighs a lot.

Lycopodium 30x or 9c is for a child who gets angry as a result of his insecurity. This is helpful for the angry child living in a home filled with feelings of uncertainty. Lycopodium is also useful for a child who experiences fear and anxiety in any new situation. It is good for situations involving a performance, such as getting up in front of the class or trying a new sport or game.

Give Natrum muriaticum 30x or 9c to a sad child who dwells on morbid ideas in the home or in the news, rejects sympathy, is sensitive, and does not like being fussed over.

If a child is critical, has feelings of superiority, experiences outbursts of anger, and is short-tempered, give him Nux vomica 30x or 9c.

Phosphorus 30x or 9c is for the fearful, extremely sensitive child who develops feelings of anxiety over what others may be thinking or feeling about him.

Pulsatilla 30x or 9c is good for a child who is timid, sensitive, and easily frightened, and who cries easily. Pulsatilla is homeopathic windflower, and it is beneficial for the child whose moods change like the wind.

If your child voices a particular recurrent or outstanding fear, an appropriate homeopathic remedy may be very helpful. Try giving your child one dose of a remedy (use a 30x or 15c potency), three times a day, for three days. Discontinue for one week and repeat. If this seems to have a beneficial effect, wait one month and repeat the entire cycle.

The following are some remedies that may be useful to investigate for this purpose:

  • For fear of aliens, try Phosphorus or Arsenicum album.
  • For fear of the dark, try Calcarea carbonica, Lycopodium, or Stramonium.
  • For fear of death, try Calcarea carbonica, Arsenicum album, Lycopodium, or Phosphorus.
  • For fear of being eaten by animals, try Stramonium.
  • For fear of insects, try Calcarea carbonica.
  • For fear upon closing one’s eyes, try Causticum.
  • For fear of crowds, try Lycopodium, Argentum nitricum, or Aconite.
  • For fear of going to church, try Argentum nitricum.
  • For fear of knives, try Arsenicum album, Alumina, or China.
  • For fear of cockroaches, try Phosphorus.
  • For fear of doctors, try Ignatia or Phosphorus.
  • For fear of dogs, try Calcarea carbonica, Belladonna, China, or Tuberculinum.
  • For fear of high places, try Argentumnitricum, Natrummuriaticum, Phosphorus, or Pulsatilla.
  • For fear of water, try Lyssin.
  • For fear of everything, try Calcarea carbonica or Pulsatilla.

If your child’s moods are extreme and highly changeable, a constitutional remedy prescribed by a homeopath may be helpful in easing and balancing emotional swings and patterns.

Bach Flower Remedies

Bach Flower Rescue Remedy helps to calm a child, restore his balance and confidence, and relieve apprehension. It will help a child who is upset, whether angry, crying, afraid, or tense. It is useful in many crisis situations, such as after hearing bad news, before a test, before going to the dentist, after falling and getting hurt, or upon waking up from a nightmare. Rescue Remedy is particularly good in acute situations in which the cause of the distress is not always clear-times when a child begins screaming and crying and feeling intensely and inconsolably frustrated for no apparent reason. Place a drop of the mother tincture into a small glass of noncarbonated water and have your child sip it. Ask him to swish the mixture around in his mouth before swallowing. Or mix 3 drops of the mother tincture with 2 ounces of water and give your child 2 droppersful, or 1 teaspoon, three times a day.

There are two Bach Flower remedies that are standards for the fearful child. If your child has fears but cannot name what they are about, give him Aspen. If he can name the source of his fear, use Mimulus.

Other individual Bach Flower Remedies are
helpful for easing specific emotional upsets or balancing certain temperaments.
To select the remedy that is most appropriate for your child’s situation, see


For the locations of acupressure points on a child’s body, see ADMINISTERING AN ACUPRESSURE TREATMENT.

Four Gates is calming and soothing to a child who is upset.

Neck and Shoulder Release helps release tension centered in the head, neck, and shoulder area, and will help relax your child.

General Recommendations

Make your family’s emotional and physical well-being a priority. Part of that commitment is to realize that you have physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of your own that must be nurtured and cared for.

When you notice yourself having a strong response to your child’s sadness, anger, or fear, try to explore what this can teach you about your own emotions. In The Tao of Motherhood (Nucleus Publishers, 1991), Vimala McClure, founder of the International Association of Infant Massage Instructors, writes, “Parenting is a spiritual path which can bring you great pain and great joy and which can have a tremendous positive impact on your personality and behavior. I believe our children, unknowingly and with innocent trickery, teach us the deeper knowledge of how to be a true human being.”

Help your child acknowledge and name feelings. For instance, you might say, “You sound angry that your sister took your favorite toy without asking,” or, “I hear your frustration about losing that game.”

Help your child name his deeper emotional needs, and offer suggestions about how he might be able to get what he wants. What your child expresses as anger may actually be a need for your attention, for example. Once you are able to determine this, you may be able to meet that need by spending an afternoon together or having breakfast together each morning. A child who is unwilling to go to bed on time may really be afraid of the dark, something that might be relieved by a night-light or a bedtime story.

Put yourself in the child’s place. Try to “get inside” his mind and inner world. Feel how big and scary the adult world must be at times. Imagine how hard it must be to try to explain feelings you don’t have the words for or perhaps don’t even understand yet. Situations that we take for granted as adults may be overwhelming and difficult for a child. Imagine the guidance and support he needs. Putting yourself in your child’s place can help you to understand and guide him in a way that is supportive.

Help your child develop constructive ways of
handling strong feelings, and, if possible, to express his feelings and wants
to the specific person involved. Or, if the person is not available and the
frustration is unbearable, teach your child to punch a pillow or yell at a doll
and take out his anger in a way that is safe and healthy. Teach children to
be respectful of themselves and of those around them. Acting out and yelling
at a person or hitting a person are not acceptable behaviors.

Be clear and, above all, consistent in establishing guidelines and agreements.

Be a role model for your child. Handle your own feelings by being truthful about them and constructive and safe in how you deal with them. It is far better to say, “I am angry about my friend missing our appointment,” than it is to say you feel fine while your behavior and the tone of your voice say something else. Children are confused by mixed messages. They are likely to assume that you are angry at them, as well as to learn that it is not okay to express feelings.

Supporting a child’s emotional well-being is a responsibility parents face over many years. It requires a lot of attention. There are parent support groups, parent training opportunities, and workshops for children that help develop healthy self-esteem and healthy family dynamics. Whether or not you are facing a specific stress or emotional problem in your family, these workshops and groups can help promote emotional health for the whole family.

Dosage Guidelines
Herbal Medicine
Bach Flowers

From Smart Medicine for a Healthier Child by Janet Zand, N.D., L.Ac., Robert Rountree, MD, Rachel Walton, RN, ©1994. Published by Avery Publishing, New York. For personal use only; neither the digital nor printed copy may be copied or sold. Reproduced by permission.

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Written by Janet Zand LAc OMD

Explore Wellness in 2021