Emotional Regulation and Your Child
Most adults don’t throw a tantrum when life’s daily stresses occur.
This is a good thing – could you imagine supermarkets filled with adults rolling around on the floor crying, kicking and screaming because their favourite product was discontinued?
We experience the same emotions of disappointment, frustration or anger as a toddler, but we have learned emotional self-regulation – the ability to acknowledge and accept how we feel and process it appropriately. You might also think of this as self-control.
Self-regulation comes naturally to some people, yet is a major challenge for others. Expressing how we feel is an important human ability. At the same time, accepting boundaries and respecting others are important social skills.
Helping children handle big-feelings, express them appropriately and understand how others feel is as important as supporting them through physical development and early learning.
Many people focus on a child’s behaviour during emotional outbursts, and seek ways to prevent them or punish a child for doing so. Naughty steps, time out chairs and even star charts all focus on the result of the child’s lack of self-regulation, but do not help them to learn how to better handle emotions.
As Rebecca Eanes says in her book, The Newbie's Guide to Positive Parenting, “Tantrums are not bad behaviour. Tantrums are an expression of emotion that became too much for the child to bear. No punishment is required. What your child needs is compassion and safe, loving arms to unload in.”
5 Ways To Teach Emotional Regulation
Here are five key steops to help your child develop his or her emotional regulation.
#1: Be A Good Role Model
Our children do what they see. If their parents struggle with self-regulation, they may too.
As hard as it's, working on your own emotional control is the first step to supporting theirs. This means acknowledging your responses to “big feelings” and finding ways to change your over-reactions.
Most adults were raised with different discipline methods. You may have experienced physical punishments like smacking, been yelled at, time-out or directed to suppress your emotions. Your child’s behaviour may trigger emotions from your own childhood and bring unresolved issues to the surface.
It can help to acknowledge these feelings and find ways to handle your own emotional responses, as well as helping your child do the same. If childhood memories are intruding into your parenting, you might consider working through those issues, helping you recognise and manage those triggers.
Mindfulness is one helpful method people use to stay in the moment. Mindfulness involves acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them—without believing there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to think or feel in a given moment. Practising this technique might help you focus on what is happening right now, without getting caught up in what happened in the past. You can learn more at Mindfulness for Life.
#2: Attachment Matters
The words we use to describe the relationship between mother and child share a similar descriptive basis:
… this is not accidental.
To achieve independence, there must first be dependence. During the early years of life, a child is completely reliant on their mother or other primary caregiver for everything.
Yet this high dependence coincides with the period of pre- and early- verbal communication, meaning other systems of signalling develop between mother and child. We refer to these as cues and they form the basis of the relationship of care, especially in the first three years of life.
Secure attachment develops when a child knows his needs will be responded to promptly. When a parent responds quickly, with warmth and understanding, he feels secure. Stress hormones like cortisol are quickly replaced with love hormones like oxytocin.
As infant becomes toddler, they begin to develop verbal communication skills, but are limited in vocabulary and skill in using them, so continue to rely on the parent’s ability to read the physical cues of hunger, tiredness, frustration and anger.
It's this secure attachment which enables the child to learn to express and regulate their emotions. Indeed, a recent US study found that infants aged below three who do not form strong bonds with their mother or father are more likely to suffer from aggression, defiance and hyperactivity when they get older – all signs they lack the ability to self-regulate.
You can read more in our article about a study which found 40% of children are lacking secure attachments, and learn ways you can build that strong attachment from birth.
#3: Feelings Are Always Valid – Even When They Are Inconvenient Or Difficult!
Society sets higher standards of behaviour for those just beginning to experience emotions than it does for those with a fully developed brain.
We allow for adult mood changes, bad days and other signs of loss of control, with labels which take the blame: stress, hormones, fatigue, and so on.
Dr Laura Markham, author of the book Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting, describes it beautifully: “Setting limits on kid's behaviour doesn't mean we need to set limits on feelings.”
We want our children to express their feelings. We need to accept all of those feelings – but we don’t have to accept the behaviours which might come with them. When we respond to our children’s emotions with empathy and understanding, they learn how to respond to others in the same way.
In our busy lives, it's sometimes hard to allow time to acknowledge how our child is feeling, when they experience such overwhelming emotions all day, every day.
Yet we can lose a lot more time when overwhelming emotions spiral into full-blown tantrums and emotional melt-downs. By watching for cues, you can step in, assist and reassure and perhaps transform major disaster back to minor inconvenience.
Just as you have helped your child identify and name different parts of the body, you can help them learn about different emotions. When your little one is overwhelmed by emotion, you can help by:
- Naming the emotion – “You're sad”
- Identifying the cause of the emotion – “You don’t want to go home yet”
- Offering reassurance – “It’s okay to feel sad…”
- Offering a reason “… but we need to pick daddy up from the train.”
Finally, present a positive outcome:
“Then you can show Daddy the picture you made at playgroup!”
There are lots of emotions – both positive and negative – which you can help your child understand.
“You're happy/excited!” can be described in the same way as, “You're sad/disappointed”. Gradually, the child will start to integrate these feelings into play, recognise those feelings in others, and finally, begin to verbalise their own feelings.
You can also express and describe your own emotions:
- “I'm so excited that …”
- “I am disappointed that …”
- “I am frustrated that …”
Doing so will show that everyone feels these things, and there are appropriate ways to express them.
#4: Discipline, Not Punishment
Just as it's inappropriate – and ineffective – to punish a child for wetting his pants as he learns bladder control, using punishment as he learns emotional control is both unfair and unrealistic.
At the same time, some behaviours are never acceptable, such as hitting, biting, throwing objects at others or deliberately breaking things in anger or frustration. Through discipline (which actually means to teach, not punish, which society tends to relate it to) adults can redirect unacceptable behaviours.
Behaviours which harm self, others or our environment can be redirected into acceptable behaviours which allow the physical expression of those big feelings. By developing a toolbox of safe outlets for these emotions, we can guide the child into behaviour modification, rather than repeatedly punish – which teaches fear and resentment.
Things to try might include: using a pillow, punching bag or other object for “acceptable hitting”; stress balls to squeeze hard; silicone “teething” toys for biters to express their frustration; safe spaces to run around, kick or throw balls or otherwise work through physical signs of overwhelm.
For other children, a safe space in which to retreat to allows them to regulate their feelings in private. Some families create a nesting space with cushions, soft toys, books and “calm down” items, perhaps inside a play tent or other enclosed space. Rather than be placed in “time out” as punishment, the child chooses when they need some space away from others to process what they have experienced.
Having options available, initially directed by parents but eventually used by the child as self-discipline, can develop life-long skills for regulating emotions. You might even find some techniques find their way into your own emotional tool-box.
#5: I Am With You
Support is something most of us say we need, especially in times of trouble.
Ask the question of any adult, “What can I do to help?” and the answer will likely be something like, “Just having your support makes it easier.”
When your child is in a state of dysregulation (when his emotions have overwhelmed him to a point where he cannot regulate or control them) he needs you. If he will allow you, wrap him in a physical embrace and verbally reassure him quietly. If he resists physical contact, stay close by and let him know you are there when he is ready. If he resists your verbal reassurance, be quiet but attentive, watching for cues he is ready for your words or contact.
If you child is potentially unsafe to himself or others, then you may need to physically remove him against his wishes. Otherwise, let him have the time and space he needs to work through his feelings.
Your child’s journey to emotional maturity is a long one – science now tells us the human brain reaches an adult state after 25 years of development. We need to be understanding of our toddlers and pre-schoolers as they negotiate the very early stages of emotional awareness, and begin learning the skills of self-regulation.
These “big feelings” created by seemingly small and often silly circumstances are the forerunners of those even bigger emotions which accompany adolescence. By building the scaffolding of support now, it will hold strong through the next big evolution: from child to adult.