Emotional self-regulation is important for all kids, no matter what age! Yes, adults also need to learn some emotional regulations skills as well. Emotional regulation is necessary in negotiating relationships, managing frustrations when presented with challenging circumstances and failure, negotiating new experiences, and more. Basically, it is a life skill that needs to be mastered if we want our children to be successful.
So, what is emotional regulation? Self-regulation is the ability to manage one’s own emotions and behaviors in accordance with the demands of a situation. So, basically, it is how kids manage stress (both incoming and outgoing). Research shows that self-regulation is necessary for both academic and social/emotional success and general well-being. It is one of the most important, if not the most important, skills for your child to develop.
Many parents watch their children and often notice their stress levels rise in certain situations: in the doctor’s waiting room, getting their toy snatched by a sibling, having someone say something that hurts their feelings, etc. Often a situation like this is followed by a meltdown! They scream, smack their sibling, cry, even throw a temper tantrum. As parents we think “Oh no! He/she has got to learn that this is unacceptable.” We will quickly send them to a “time-out,” provide a stern lecture, or even give them a swat. This type of reaction on the parent’s part does not always have the desired result. Telling them to “get control of yourself” or “calm down” does not help. And here is why: kids are usually not developmentally capable of regulating their emotions and behaviors independently. When they become distressed, the flight or fight reaction often kicks in and the child is physiologically unable to calm down on their own. Parents need to help them navigate these strong emotions.
So, what does a parent do to help their child with self-regulation? A much more effective way is what is called “co-regulation.” You need to become an active partner in this process. This can be harder than it sounds. As parents, our inner alarms go off when our child is in meltdown mode, and we think/feel “Get me out of here!” We then will send our child to time out or to their room. Our own stress kicks in and urges us to move away from our child. When, instead, we need to move in and make connection with our child. Your connection with your child can fill the gap of immaturity when he/she feels out of control.
Here are some tips in improving emotional regulation skills with your child:
• Model positive emotional regulation skills for your child. How you respond to daily stressors is critical. Keep calm and talk aloud about your feelings … and model how you work through those in positive ways.
• Help your child discover his/her emotional triggers. You may have to point these triggers out to them in the beginning. Help your child gain an awareness of what causes stress for them. It could be lack of sleep, hunger, etc. Help your child connect the stressor with the behavior (e.g., whining, defiance, etc.). Work with them to avoid the triggers or deal with the trigger in a more positive way.
• Help to empower your child with knowledge. Teach kids about how their brain works. Dr. Dan Siegel has some excellent books on this topic; you can also find information online. Help them understand what is going on in their brain when they are stressed … and how they can begin to recognize and manage fear and stress.
• Help them recognize how stress feels in their body. What are their body warning signs? Do they feel hot? Do they notice their heart pounding of sweaty palms? Help them notice these warning signs and gain the awareness that they have a need to think about what they are experiencing…and talk about it if necessary.
• Help them develop some coping strategies. Help them find healthy ways to express their emotions. Help them figure out if they need some space by themselves, if they need to color, go outside, go for a walk, etc. Sometimes it helps to just sit down and play with your child…a game, toys, Legos, etc. Let them choose the activity.
• Learn mindfulness and breathing practices. There is much research out there proving the positive effects of mindfulness and breathing. First, teach them to breath slowly, in through the nose and out through the mouth. This takes some modeling on your part on practice on theirs. When you see them in stress overload, remind them to breathe. You can also teach them some simple mindfulness practices: sitting quietly, grounding, even relaxation. There are some great websites that will walk you through these practices such as https://www.mindfulnesseveryday.org/resourcesforparents.html, zerotothree.org and www.mindful.org. There are also some good apps you can use including the Calm app and Headspace.
Emotional self-regulation is important and regardless of the challenges, you can help your child learn this important life skill. I encourage you to stay consistent once you start … these behaviors will become habits.
Until next time, happy parenting!