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Cultivating Emotional Regulation in Children

Developing Your Child’s Muscle for Emotional Regulation

An outsider looking at your family would likely see your behaviors, reactions, mannerisms and yes, jokes, echoed in your child. This isn’t deliberate, children naturally learn from their environment, and they observe you all the time, taking in how you deal with a frustrating phone call, respond to their needs, and relate to your spouse. Those unconscious lessons are sometimes the most powerful ones. While you shouldn’t get performance-anxiety thinking about what kind of role model you are for your child, you should consider what you want them to see. Getting it right for your child is a powerful motivation to get a better handle on managing your own emotions.

There is important work to be done throughout childhood to give your child the tools needed for developing emotional resiliency. One way to think of this is that you are making sure they get the daily vitamin that allows them to develop a healthy relationship with their feelings. Just like the vaccines your child receives to protect them against disease, your work to help them develop the ability to regulate their emotions provides them with the inner strength and coping mechanisms to weather the challenges that your child will inevitably face throughout their life.

This emotional self-regulation begins in infancy as a child learns to sooth himself, for example, being able to fall back to sleep when awoken in the middle of the night. Learning how to share and take turns or developing the ability to concentrate on a given task or activity are also steps along this path. Even at this young age, parents play an important role.

  • Pay attention. Name and label feelings to help your child understand what they are feeling
  • Remain calm when your child gets upset.
  • Support and comfort your child when they are frustrated, tired or angry
  • Simplify tasks into manageable steps and help your child understand how each “bite” connects to the others. Acknowledge accomplishment and mastery both of the steps and the larger goal
  • Comfort using words, gestures and touch as cues like “You sound angry,” “You look sad,” or stroking a sobbing child’s back to comfort and calm them.
  • Show empathy, responding to what a child says or is trying to communicate

Most important is to be a good role model for your child. How do you handle stress? What happens when you get angry? Click here to read Emotional Regulation: A User’s Guide to learn more about managing your own emotions including suggestions for techniques you can use to do so.

Set your child you for success. Don’t push him beyond age appropriate experiences, activities or challenges. Emotional regulation develops over time, in synch with overall growth (click here for a checklist for kids and teens) Remember too that even if he is physically or intellectually precocious, their emotional development is likely not.

By the time your child begins school, her ability to reason will be developing. When she gets angry, you can help her rate her anger and talk through it, so she begins to understand what she is feeling, both emotionally and physically—you can print a chart to post on the refrigerator door for everyone in the family to refer to.

Start to link relaxation techniques, like deep breathing or visualizations you are already practicing, to managing feelings. Try this one: you go from being a robot with all your muscles clenched tight to releasing them to be a limp rag doll. This is an effective way to release tension without having to use a lot of words to explain what is happening. Try it together before watching an episode of a television show or playing a video game with your child, or after coming home from the playground. Make an observation about how doing it makes you feel; you’re planting a seed for your child to understand how he can use his body to help control how he feels.

As a child becomes more verbal and able to name the emotions he is feeling, you can practice coping “self-talk,” teaching them how to coach themselves through a stressful moment. This is something you can model. When a driver cuts you off on the way home from school, narrate what you are doing not to lose your cool. You could say: “That driver makes me crazy, but I’m not going to blast the horn. I’m taking a deep breath and relaxing my shoulders so that I can pay better attention to the road.” Another is to choose a silly word to use (like “marshmallow” or “fizzywhizzy”) when you want to swear at another driver. Adding humor into the equation of letting off steam is another great lesson.

Throughout childhood, talking about feelings is an important step in learning how to manage emotions. Name the emotion, whether it is negative like anger, sadness, stress, or positive like joy, excitement, anticipation. Accept the reaction; let your child know that whatever she is feeling is o.k. and is hard to control. What she can change is her actions, how she responds to the emotion. Find a way to help her to release it by expressing or acting in response to it, as long as she doesn’t hurt herself or someone else, whether it is by writing about them, talking to someone she trusts, giving herself permission to cry or laugh, taking time to relax, working out or channeling her feeling into an intense activity. These are all valuable steps to managing strongly felt emotions. Lastly, help your child figure out what she needs to take care of herself, what sooths her; it may be getting a hug, listening to a favorite playlist, taking a walk or nap, or getting support from a trusted friend. Just as it is important to name emotions, it is important to acknowledge and name what provides comfort. Naming is one way of knowing in both cases.

As your child approaches the teen years, as a parent, you need to step up your game. Adolescents react impulsively and instinctively. Their gut-level interpretation of emotions is controlled by the amygdala. It controls the fight or flight response, the basis of so many poor decisions made by teenagers. Remember that the part of the brain that reasons, plans, considers consequences and counteracts impulses, the pre-frontal cortex, isn’t fully developed until the mid-20s. Throughout the teen years, the pre-frontal cortex gradually reins in the amygdala. As a parent, you can short circuit the gut impulsive reactions your teen is feeling.

As the parent, you’re the coach. By calming your teen, slowing her down to think through feelings, actions and consequences, you are helping her make better decisions, and a boost to her developing pre-frontal cortex. You can say: “I want to understand what you are saying – I know it is important. Can you speak to me calmly?” You can then help her consider more rationally what she is feeling and what she wants to do. This can be challenging because you need to juggle your own judgment with your teen’s and you don’t want to take over and draw conclusions and make decisions for her. Another way to think about your role as a parent, is to think about your guidance as providing options which she can explore and choose among. For example, if she sees an upsetting post on social media and she wants to immediately respond by posting something to get back at someone, you can lay out several alternatives that you know are safe and she won’t regret once she’s cooled down. While you have limited the choices, you haven’t taken away your teen’s ability to make a choice – while being a good parent, you’re also an empowering your teen to choose for herself.

Throughout the teen years, all parents and their offspring ride an emotional roller coaster as the push and pull of dependence and self-reliance, a teen’s emerging independent identity, brain development that allows for good judgement to blossom over time, are mixed together in a potent stew. To achieve the result every parent wants for their child, a successful launch into adulthood, instilling the skills of emotional regulation is a cornerstone of good and effective positive parenting. Read Taking Action to Cultivate Your Child’s (and Your Own) Ability to Successfully Regulate Emotions for ideas and suggestions for cultivating emotional resiliency in your family as well as links to additional articles and resources, including helpful YouTube videos to share with your family.