4 Words Children Use When Coping With Emotions

by Danny Huerta

You can help your children to learn true freedom when coping with emotions and difficult situations by teaching them to think about life using certain words and phrases.

Emotions can flood the healthiest of minds. Children’s minds are not naturally equipped to make logical sense of powerful emotions and difficult situations.  Children are equipped, however, with the ability to adapt and shift their minds.  Some of the inattentiveness that naturally occurs in young children can come in handy when dealing with challenging situations. It is interesting to see that when children feel like they have little control, they tend to use certain words and ask specific questions to try to create order when coping with emotions.

As parents, we can help our children understand the power of these words and how they impact a person’s mindset. We need to guide our children toward using helpful words during difficult circumstances — words that will shape positive perspectives and give them the tools to overcome life’s challenges and mentally reframe difficult to manage moments.

Words Children Might Use When Coping with Emotions

Let’s look at four different words that children might use as they try to process the world around them. The way our children use these words, phrases, and questions in conversation with us will determine how we can shape their thinking in positive ways. The power of words can make a tremendous impact on a child’s mindset and reality.

What If?

“What if” questions tend to arise when a child’s reality is painful or when worries flood their mind. These questions can create a tsunami of worry and catastrophic thinking. They can also direct the mind toward an ideal outcome. The beauty of “what if” questions is that they can help the brain give their life story flexibility.  Stories are not fixed and are dynamic. “What if” questions can diffuse negative emotions by seeking explanations. 

Consider the following questions:

  • “What if I was better at basketball? Would my dad love me more?”
  • “What if I was thinner or better looking? Would my mum be proud of me?”
  • “What if my mum and dad hadn’t gotten a divorce?”
  • “What if my mum loses her job?”

These questions evoke different scenarios to cope with painful emotions, deal with the past, and conjure a sense of control. These questions try to anticipate the future and play out the ideal scenario. However, asking “what if” questions can stir feelings of anxiety and worry about the future unless you address them quickly as a parent or help your child learn positive ways to use “what if” questions.


The word “should” communicates a specific demand and expectation. It gives an unyielding picture of how events should take place or how life ought to be. Creating statements with the word “should” ignores that we can’t control other people’s actions, thoughts, or decisions. It is a fixed perspective that does not allow flexibility to the story. 

These statements of expectation may sound like this:

  • “My dad should spend more time with me!”
  • “Dad’s shouldn’t leave their families!” 
  • “My mum should not drink.”
  • “My mum shouldn’t yell.” 

These statements may be accurate, but what does the word “should” do to someone emotionally? Notice that it is demanding and inflexible; it creates expectations. When someone or something doesn’t meet these rigid expectations, children may feel disappointed, frustrated, judgmental, or angry. The power of words so small as “should” can have an enormous impact.

I Wonder

“I wonder” questions reveal a lot about our children’s worries and insecurities. It can open a window into how they are coping with emotions. In my counselling practice, I’ve heard children ask the following:

  • “I wonder if my parents are going to get a divorce?” 
  • “I wonder if my dad loves me.”
  • “I wonder why my parents argue so much.” 
  • “I wonder if my dad will have time to play this weekend?”

Help guide your children to ask these questions using the word “could” (explained below) to help them accept a few different outcomes. For example, your child might say, “I wonder if my mum and dad will stay together.” You could turn that question into a “could” statement such as, “My parents could decide to split up, and what I can control is _______.”

In a child’s early development, wonder often starts with questions that explore how things apply in their world or how things work. As children develop further, they may shift toward wondering what others think or how things might go wrong. 

“I wonder” expresses not only curiosity but hopes and wishes when things seem out of control. It is essential to help children openly express these questions and to cope with their emotions and what is influencing the direction of the “I wonder” questions. 


“Could” is the most helpful of the words children use to cope with emotions and circumstances. The power of this word allows for freedom and flexibility. It will enable a child to accept that some things are out of their control while knowing that life will still be okay, even when things don’t go as planned. Using the word could is an excellent way to help bring order to situations that may feel chaotic. “Could” helps refocus the child’s mind toward what he or she can control. 

Here are a couple of examples:

  • “My mum and dad could have stayed married, but they chose to get a divorce. I could still try to have a good relationship with both of them, or I could stay angry.” 
  • “My dad could have stayed but chose to leave the family. I could forgive him and engage in my own story, or I could stay angry and have difficulty in my relationships.” 

“Could” provides opportunities for our children to learn how to offer grace and forgiveness. It allows our children to stop striving for control of things that are not controllable. 

A Choice for Freedom

Mums and dads are imperfect, and some leave big wounds and difficult questions behind. Children left in turmoil could be controlled and defined by hurts and insecurities. On the other hand, they could accept what is and choose freedom — freedom to forgive, freedom to love others, freedom to control the controllable things, and freedom to write a life story of redemption and resiliency. The path to freedom is found in the power of these words.

Help your children to take their “what if,” “I wonder,” and “should” thoughts and conversations and turn them into “could” to reshape the direction of the “what ifs,” “I wonders,” and “shoulds.” Using the power of the word “could” as they make sense of difficult situations will help steer their thoughts toward freedom and healthy ownership.

Human Nature Impacts How We Cope With Emotion

Human nature wants to go straight to the “what if” questions and “should” statements. Those questions will be the first place your children tend to go when trying to cope with emotions and circumstances in their lives. 

As humans, we have a hard time with trust. Trust is required to have a mindset of wondering what could happen and leaving the door open for anything to happen. Most people want to be in control of everything that is happening around them. But control can be an illusion. Think about it: How much control do you have in your day-to-day life? And when you fight harder to control things, does it seem all the more elusive? 

If we rely on those “what if” and “should” questions, we follow our human nature. Living by what the body wants and thinks it needs becomes constricting and can imprison you. 

© 2020 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Originally published at focusonthefamily.com.

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