By Amy Taylor

Upset child


Parenting is tough. Parenting a child with an emotional disability brings its own set of challenges. In learning about your child’s emotional disability and how to best support them, you can help your child learn healthy coping mechanisms to best navigate the world. Here’s our best advice for parenting your child with an emotional disability.

What are Emotional Disabilities?

Emotional disabilities encompass a spectrum of issues. For additional help at school, your child must meet the Virginia Department of Education’s definition. According to their definition, a child must experience a condition over time, to a marked degree, which adversely affects educational performance. This can include:

  • depression
  • developing physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems
  • inability to maintain interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers
  • inappropriate behavior or feelings under normal circumstances
  • inability to learn which can’t be explained by intellectual, sensory or health factors.

“Kids with emotional disabilities, with the exception of kids who may have schizophrenia, bipolar or other chemical imbalances, are mostly children who have not yet learned to self-regulate. Their behavior is their way to express that they need something,” says Danielle Fink, M.Ed., special education teacher for Prince William County Schools.

“When behavior comes across as anger, it’s because they can’t express their emotions. A lot of these cases the kids have adverse childhood experiences like the loss of a relative, boyfriends and girlfriends coming and going, or have witnessed drug abuse, mental abuse, or physical abuse and they don’t have the coping skills to deal with it.”

Because many emotional disabilities are associated with skills deficits, this means there is hope to help children learn to better regulate their emotions and behaviors over time.

Here are tips to get you started.

Be Consistent

In terms of parenting, consistency is key.

“Having consistent expectations, consistent rules and consistent consequences from all adults in the child’s life can be very stabilizing—although initially there may be increases in challenging behavior,” says Kat Lynch, owner of New Hope ABA, an applied behavior analysis and educational consultation firm in Woodbridge.

While you may be inclined to pour all your energy into your child, it’s important to take care of yourself.

“Making sure you, as the parent, are getting breaks and support of your own, is crucial to preventing burn out and maintaining consistency,” advises Lynch.

Model Calm

It’s difficult to keep your cool when your child is having a tantrum or meltdown. It’s important for you to regain your composure so you can help your child calm down.

“While it’s extremely frustrating…you’re not going to be able to punish or reward this behavior out of them,” says Fink. “Show them by modeling the appropriate behaviors for them. If you meet them with anger you’re going to be met with anger.”

Seize Teachable Moments

While putting kids into timeout stops the outburst, you can use timeout wisely, too. Speak to your child about the event, aim to understand their perspective and teach them what proper behavior looks like prior to re-instating them from a timeout.

“Parents tend to put them in their room or on time out, but there’s not the reflection moment to help them learn the skills for next time,” Fink says. Fink recommends parents read “Kids These Days: A Game Plan for (Re)Connecting with Those We Teach, Lead & Love” by Jody Carrington. This book explains how your child’s brain works during a tantrum or meltdown, how to de-escalate your child and how to work with your child’s school to best support them.

Close the Distance

Getting down to your child’s level can help your child de-escalate when emotions run high.

“Sit eye to eye and talk to them about their feelings letting them know you understand. Coach and guide them through how they can behave,” says Fink. “Sometimes kids need time alone to get through the anger phase because they’re not able to communicate it in the moment. A mistake we make is trying to get them

to talk while they’re still elevated and can’t talk to you.

Resources for Parents

When parents work together with schools, therapists and outside agencies to create a powerful network of support, kids can learn the skills they need to thrive.

“To learn about your child’s disability, get plugged into local resources such as the Parent Resource Center and the Special Education Advisory Council. Both of these are school-related, and the schools can help you get connected, too. Parents can also reach out to the Community Services Board if they or their child are in crisis,” Lynch says.

“Your child may have an IEP with an eligibility category of ‘emotional disability’ without having an actual diagnosis. If you want your child to receive a diagnosis, talk to your pediatrician about getting a referral to see a child psychologist or psychiatrist to get an official diagnosis, which can then direct more effective treatment.”

Many supports are behavior-specific so contact your pediatrician, school social worker, school psychologist or school counselor for resources in your area.

“There are agencies that can be billed through insurance for in-home counseling. This can be the first step for kids to go to individual therapy. It lets them work on their emotional responses in a safe environment and allows them to learn the precursor skills before individual therapy,” Fink says.

Be patient with yourself and with your child as you help them learn new skills.

“Teaching them when they’re calm and helping them generalize those skills takes time. Don’t give up! These kids can learn these skills, but it takes time, consistency, love, non-judgement and non-punitive support,” Fink says.