Be her emotional SOS: Three tips for helping our girls with strong emotions

Written by Fiona Ghiglione, PhD

Think back to the last time your daughter “lost it” and was caught in a battle with strong emotions. How did you handle it? Did you feel at a loss as to how best to help her? If you answered yes, you’re not alone. 

As parents of pre-teens we are not unfamiliar with emotional outbursts – remember we survived the toddler years! However, as our girls hit the preteens the problems they face and the scope of their emotions begins to become more complex. (Yes, “small kids, small problems; big kids, big problems”). So it’s natural then that we can feel nervous and slightly unprepared as we navigate this new territory.

I want you to know that there is a lot you can do to help her through tough moments. Consider yourself a kind of emotional SOS responder … here are a few tips you can use as you show up to the “crisis”:

1. Be her safe space

Overwhelming emotions feel scary because they can make us feel out of control. And most of the time our girls freak out because it feels icky having their hearts racing, their blood pumping and their minds racing. They don’t often know what to do. And sometimes feel like something is wrong with them and they want to escape. 

When we remind ourselves of her suffering we trigger our feeling of empathy. And we can show up better to her coming from this place of care and compassion.  

Repeat to yourself. “I am her safe space. I can ground myself and be here for her right now”. If you feel your own emotions taking over, simply notice the weight of your feet on the floor or your body on the chair. Notice how the floor supports you. This kind of grounding into our body can help our nervous system move into parasympathetic (relaxation) mode. 

Make your presence known to her in simple, gentle ways. Tell her that you see that she’s upset. Name what you think she’s feeling and ask if you got it right.  Ask her how you can help. Tell her you’re listening. Tell her she’s in a safe space for her to share. These small gestures mean a lot to her, even if she isn’t showing it.

2. Teach her how to anchor.

If our girls are frightened, furious, anxious, depressed, jealous (or any number of other strong emotions) it is a sign her brain is in survival mode and her amygdala is on high alert, trying to protect her from a “threat”. Maybe her friends are bullying her, she failed an exam or was shamed online – whatever the crisis – her nervous system is in full flight and her mind is stuck in the future, playing out all sorts of horrible scenarios that ‘could’ happen. 

The stress response doesn’t allow us to think straight because the “thinking” part of our brain is temporarily offline (which is why our brains can feel like they’ve gone blank when we face a tough exam). Our brains become flooded with norepinephrine and dopamine (arousal chemicals) and they tell the prefrontal cortex to shut off neuronal firing. Literally our girls can’t be rationale in these moments until they have calmed down, so there is no use starting long discussions until she has!

A powerful tool to help our girls start to reverse the stress response and move into the parasympathetic (or relaxed) state is mindfulness. Essentially mindfulness anchors us back in the present moment and reverses all those icky stress responses: her heart rate returns to normal, sweating reduces, the prefrontal cortex is activated and blood begins to circulate as normal.

What do we mean by anchoring? Think of a boat. When the boat is out at sea the waves and storms push it around (and even turn it over). When it drops the anchor it becomes more steady and secure.

There are two things that can anchor us to the present moment and help us feel more steady and secure in the midst of emotional storms: our breathe and our sensations. 

Here are four fun ways we can teach our girls to use these anchors:


The pause technique is simple. You pause for a moment and shift your attention to your senses: where are you?  Look around and notice one thing you see. Notice any smells. What do you hear? Where are your hands and feet? What are they touching? What do you taste? Our senses live in the here and now and change all the time. The more she notices these things, with a sense of curiosity and kindness, the more she is anchored and present. 

To practice this go for walks together and try it. Set up a challenge to see how many things you notice together. When you cook ask her what smells are in the dish. Get her to taste new foods and describe what she notices. 

And when she is in the stress moment ask her, do you want to go outside and take a walk with me (helping her engage her senses)? Would you like a cuddle? (engaging her sense of touch). Offer her something to eat while you talk about it and comment on the taste (engaging her taste).

2. Candle Breathing

For this technique you don’t need to light a candle but having a scented one on hand can help. Hold the UNLIT candle up in front of your face and imagine the flame flickering. Breathe in (smelling the scent if it has one) and then breathe a long breathe out imaging the flame going out. Repeat. 

3. Feather Breathing

Put a feather on the table and sit in a chair with your head down at table height. Take a small breath in and blow the feather across the table. See how far you can blow it. Pull the feather back and start again. Repeat 5 or more times. This can be fun with other people – each with their own feather – to see how far you all blow it. Make it a family challenge! 

4. Breathe 4-7-8

This is both my daughters’ favourite breathing technique as they feel a deep relaxation after only 10 or so cycles. Here’s how it works:

Breathe in for four counts (you can lift your hands up as you breathe in). Hold your breathe for 7 counts (holding your hands still in front of your chest) then breathe out for 8 counts in a long, slow and steady out breath (lowering your hands back down). 

TIP: Try teaching your daughter about these tools when she ISN’T stressed out! Explain to her how helpful they are for helping her relax and feel more in control when things are difficult. Make it a daily practice – before bed or in the morning before they leave for school! Make a space in the house where she can practice and associates with calm. The more they practice the stronger those neuronal circuits will be – and the easier they will be able to use it when they are stressed. 

Also, make sure the out-breathe is longer than the in-breathe, otherwise the breathe is stimulated and can result in hyperventilation. 

3. Remember it’s a process! 

Think about your daughter in 10 years from now. What are the skills do you hope for her to have by then? What kind of adult do you wish her to be? What are your top five?

Chances are on that list you put ‘dealing with her emotions’ or ‘emotional regulation’. 

We won’t always be around to “help” her and now is the time we can. So let’s focus on empowering her with a set of tools she will eventually be able to use on her own. 

Every time she has strong emotions is an opportunity to help her deepen her emotional awareness, believe in herself, build self-compassion, listen to her emotions and take action. 

Each of these moments is also an amazing opportunity for us to apply those same skills to our own emotions, thus growing and evolving with her (ultimately, we need to still model these things too as we know our preteens can smell a hypocrite a mile away!). 

And remember … it is all a learning process and there will be mistakes along the way. There will be resistance … and tears – but if we persist and keep our eye on the end goal we will get there. She will get there! 

Let’s believe it and do this, mama!