Emotional regulation: How to help your child manage their emotions
Managing emotions is hard. It’s hard for us adults with our fully developed brains. It’s even harder for small people, with their still developing brains. A lot of parents worry about the way their child’s emotional regulation. They worry that their child is too sensitive, too quick to become distressed, too angry, lashes out, throws too many tantrums, can’t cope with disappointment, or cries too much. If you follow along on social media, you’ll notice that I talk about feelings. A lot. Maybe you even roll your eyes when you see it coming, “Here she goes again with the feelings..” But there’s a reason I talk about emotions so much. They’re important. Duh!
No but really, they are super important. Effective emotional regulation is one of the most important things you can teach them as a parent. It affects their education. Their mental health. Their relationships with others. Their professional life. Their resilience. Their self esteem. Their future children. Their relationship with you. Pretty much everything they do now and in the future, requires some degree of emotional regulation. After all, we don’t want them to still be throwing tantrums when they get to adulthood! It’s generally frowned upon.
Now before you go into a panic thinking about all the ways you may have stunted your child emotionally and destroyed their future, let me tell you something about emotional regulation. It’s a learned skill. Which means it’s a teachable skill. You just need a bit of know how. I have that know how, and I’m going to give it to you now, so listen up!
Here are 6 steps you can take to gently teach your child emotional regulation skills.
1. Manage your own emotions appropriately
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. And again. And again. because it is SO important. The number one thing we can do to help our child with emotional regulation, is to model effective emotional regulation. Is it hard? Oh.My.God.Yes! I happen to think emotional regulation is one of the most difficult things about parenting. And no-one warns you about it before hand. For a variety of reasons, those little people of ours push our buttons. They push buttons we didn’t even know we had. This is normal.
It’s also normal to feel like you just want to get away from them when they have a meltdown. Why? Because their meltdown triggers the flight or fight response in us. I talk more about fight or flight in these posts here and here. But basically, their reaction causes us stress. That stress makes us want to either run away or fight. And so, when faced with a hysterical child, or an aggressive child, or a child who is just completely melting down, we want to either fight the stressor (i.e. yell, scream, lash out, hit or spank them), or we want to run away (i.e. send them to their room, tell them to stop, walk away – whatever we can do to escape the stress).
The problem with this, is that it teaches them that their feelings are bad and that they make others uncomfortable. Or worse, they make them angry. They learn that expressing emotions gets them in trouble, or hurt. As parents, it is our job to be the calm in their chaos. Meet their tantrum with calmness. Don’t have your own. Find some calming strategies that work for you, and use them. Because if you can’t remain calm in the face of difficulty, how on earth can you expect them to? Their brains are still growing and developing, and whether you like it or not, they are always watching you. That is how they learn. So teach them that they can use helpful strategies to manage their emotions, by using them yourself.
2. Talk about feelings
Yours. Theirs. Their siblings. Their friends. The kid at the park. The kid on tv. The character in their book. The child you saw at the shops today who was crying. Give them the language they need to talk about emotions. Label emotions when you see them, “That little girl is crying, she might be feeling sad.” Label emotions when you feel them yourself, “I am feeling frustrated because I’m stuck in this traffic.”
A lot of the time as parents, we feel like we need to hide our feelings away from our children. Especially the “bad” ones. But expressing our emotions (appropriately) lets children know that feelings are ok to talk about, that they can be managed, and that they don’t last forever. Try saying something like, “I’m feeling frustrated, but I can listen to music to help me stay calm, and I know that eventually the traffic jam will clear up and I’ll feel better again.”
3. Help your child recognise their emotions
You can start this when they are very young, by labelling their emotions for them when they appear. Your three year old is having a meltdown? Label that feeling: “You’re feeling disappointed because mummy gave you the red cup. You’re feeling angry because daddy said no. You feel sad that we have to leave the park.”
This will help your child pair the emotion with how they are feeling at the time. It will also help your child to understand that emotions don’t just come from nowhere. There is a trigger. And I know lots of you are probably saying, “Hey, sometimes they do come from nowhere!” Well, I’m here to tell you…no. Sorry. They do not. You may not be aware of the trigger. But there is one. It could be something in your environment, or it could be something within you. But there is always a reason for feeling the way that we do.
This is important for your child to understand, because if emotions feel unpleasant, and suddenly spring up for no reason at all – well that’s kinda scary. It’s unpredictable. It suggests that they have no control. While it’s true that we cannot control how we feel, we can certainly control what we do with the feeling. How we manage it. And that’s how we’re able to feel better.
Also talk to them about how their body might feel when they’re experiencing the emotion: “You need to stomp your angry out of your legs. Your tummy feels funny because you’re nervous. I can see that you’re sad because you are crying.”
We often notice physical sensations in our bodies before we recognise how we feel emotionally. Our muscles start to tense up, our head becomes foggy, our mouth becomes dry. Learning that emotions have associated physical feelings means that your child can learn to identify their feelings early on, before they become overwhelmed by them. Because once that emotion train gets going, it is sooo much harder to stop.
4. Validate their feelings
Don’t dismiss how they’re feeling by telling them something like, “You’re ok”, or “There’s nothing to be scared of”, or “It will be fine.” I know you just want them to feel better. But comments like this make a child think their feelings must be “wrong”. They learn not to trust their own feelings. There may not be anything to be scared of. But that doesn’t make how they feel any less real.
It’s more helpful to acknowledge how they feel, perhaps normalise their experience, and offer up a suggestion for dealing with the feeling. For example, “Lots of kids feel nervous on their first day of school. I feel nervous when I do new things too. What can we do to help you feel less nervous?” Or, “I know you feel scared now, but sometimes what we think will be really scary, turns out to be not so scary once we try it. Can you think of a time when you were scared about something and it turned out to be less scary than you thought?”
There’s nothing quite as effective as drawing upon real life experiences. Just make sure if you use this strategy, you can think of a time when they effectively managed something they were scared of – because if neither of you can think of an example, you risk making them feel worse!
5. Allow them to express their feelings
Even if they are (gasp!) different to yours. Children who are not “allowed” to express how they feel, will learn that it’s not safe to express emotions. They’ll learn to push those feelings down inside of themselves. They’ll still feel the feelings of course, because we can’t stop ourselves from feeling. Instead, they will keep shoving those feelings deeper and deeper down until they can’t fit any more emotions in there. And then they’ll explode. All those feelings they haven’t been allowed to express will come bubbling up to the surface and they’ll lash out.
Sometimes it will be a really small thing that triggers them. It’s a straw-camel’s back type situation. You might be left wondering what in earth happened to elicit such a huge response. And so will they. This will further cement the idea in their mind that emotions are scary and should not be let out, thus perpetuating this unhealthy cycle.
So, what does not allowing a child to express emotions look like? “Stop crying. There’s nothing to be upset about. I can’t deal with this. Go to your room until you’ve calmed down. Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.”
It also looks like punishing a child when they have an emotional meltdown. Sending them to time out. Spanking them. Whatever punishment looks like in your house. Now, don’t get the wrong idea here. If your child is doing the wrong thing, you absolutely need to set boundaries. But we need to make sure we are not punishing them for the expression of the emotion. It is ok to feel angry. It is not ok to hit others when we feel angry. It’s ok to feel frustrated. It’s not ok to throw things when you feel frustrated. Do you see the difference?
We need to separate the emotion from the behaviour so we can teach appropriate expression of emotion, not stop the expression of emotion all together. We do this by first validating the feeling and helping them calm down. THEN dealing with the behaviour once they are calm. Unless someone is in danger obviously – there is no need to validate little Johnny’s feelings while he’s weaving in and out of oncoming traffic!
6. Teach them coping skills
Lots of parents, and teachers, expect children to know how to cope with emotions. But we don’t really teach them how. So how do we expect them to learn it? It’s not enough to tell them what NOT to do. We need to show them what they CAN do. It’s important to model coping skills for children. Find what works for you and do it. Explain to your child why you’re doing it. Let them see you using your coping skills often. But also encourage them to find their own coping skills.
When I speak to kids about coping skills, I talk to them about their imaginary toolbox. We want to fill that toolbox with as many different tools as we can. Sometimes they’ll need a hammer. Sometimes they’ll need a drill. Sometimes they’ll pull every tool out of that toolbox until they find one that works. The more we put in the toolbox, the more options they have.
Not every skill will work in every situation. Not every skill will work for every child. Sometimes a skill that’s worked well in a similar situation won’t be effective in this one. They will probably develop favourites over time. But they won’t know which tool is best for which situation until they’ve tested it out. So we want to really skill them up. Shove as many skills as we can into that toolbox until it is overflowing.
I won’t go into details here about coping skills because that could be an entire blog post just on it’s own. But here are some examples you might like to try: mindful breathing, yoga, exercise, colouring in, going to a calm down corner/space, reading a book, listening to music, hugging their favourite teddy, hugging you.
At first, your child will probably need you to remind them of these strategies, or do them with them. This is normal, and expected. Many parents worry that they are “rewarding” bad behaviour by sitting with their child, or hugging them when they need to calm down. I assure you, you are not. Your child is not intentionally trying to make your life hard in these moments. They are overwhelmed and they need assistance to calm down and reset their nervous system. They need connection in order to do this. Not isolation. If you respond to your child’s overwhelm by helping them calm down, they will learn how to do this themselves eventually. And isn’t that the goal?
I’m pretty sure it is.
Looking for some tools and resources to help your child manage their emotions? See the emotional regulation section of the shop here.
Sarah is a psychologist, mama of 4 and the creator of Mindful Little Minds. She has over 10 years of experience working with children, adolescents and families experiencing mental health problems and has a special interest in anxiety disorders in children. In her spare time she enjoys hugging her kids, drinking coffee, and telling anyone who’ll listen how tired she is.