I’ll never forget the day my 2-year-old daughter had a complete meltdown in the store. She was hot and tired, and she wanted a toy from the shelf. Lying face down and screaming in the middle of the aisle, she was inconsolable. I could almost hear the people nearby thinking, “Why isn’t she controlling her child better? This kid needs to be disciplined!”
If you have ever seen a meltdown like this, you’ve witnessed a child unable to regulate their emotions.
What is emotional regulation?
Put simply, emotional regulation is the ability to manage your emotional responses. When you exercise control over your emotions rather than allowing them to control you, you are practicing emotional regulation.
This doesn’t mean ignoring or avoiding negative emotions, but rather identifying and monitoring each feeling you’re experiencing and adjusting your behavior accordingly.
Why is emotional regulation important?
Emotional regulation is a type of emotional intelligence. We promote emotional intelligence when we improve our children’s ability to regulate their emotions. Fostering good emotional regulation is one way of building high emotional intelligence.
As kids grow, they become self-aware and recognize that they are individuals with their own personality and emotions. Being able to identify these emotions helps kids learn to accept and process them in a healthy way.
Good emotional regulation strategies help kids (and adults) in numerous ways. Practicing emotional regulation:
- increases resilience
- provides coping strategies
- increases tolerance to distress and negative emotions
- protects against depression and anxiety disorders
- promotes focus and flexible thinking
- improves impulse control
- builds problem-solving skills
These benefits mean more confidence and happiness and improved overall emotional well-being.
What are the effects of poor emotional regulation?
Over time, poor emotional regulation, or emotional dysregulation, can have a negative effect on a person’s well-being and social relationships. Being unable to express your emotions leads to frustration, anger, and anxiety, and inability to control your feelings can result in social exclusion.
Children and adults who can’t regulate their emotions will often lash out, saying or doing they later regret. Choosing to suppress emotions, which is a form of emotional regulation, can also be unhealthy.
How to know when your child needs help dealing with their emotions
Just like adults, kids feel things with varying degrees of intensity, and some children are more sensitive to their emotions. While positive emotions can be overwhelming, negative emotions are usually the ones we have difficulty managing.
Very young children (under 36 months) are mostly unable to regulate their emotions and usually need help bringing their feelings under control. This explains why the “terrible twos” can be such a tough time. Imagine having such intense emotions and being unable to describe or control them.
As they get older, children should begin managing their emotional responses better. If they’re unable to articulate their feelings and are regularly overwhelmed, they might need help dealing with their emotions.
How to help a child regulate their emotions
When we teach our kids emotional regulation skills, we are equipping them with the tools they need to self-regulate and manage their feelings.
Here are a few emotional regulation techniques you can teach your child:
- Name the feeling. Teach your child to pay attention to how they are feeling. By helping your child to build an emotional vocabulary, you’re making sure that they can understand and express their emotions.
- Feel the feeling. An awareness of how an emotion makes your child feel improves their understanding of the effect emotions have on the body. Anxiety can cause “butterflies,” anger can make you feel hot, and fear can give you the chills.
- Normalize the feeling. There is a belief that negative emotions are bad. Remind your children that all feelings are normal. Acknowledge theirs, saying, for example, “I can see you’re very sad” or “You look upset; would you like to talk about it?” Discuss also how you are feeling by saying things like, “I was happy when you tidied your room.”
- Press pause. Teaching your kids to take a moment before reacting can prevent tantrums or outbursts of anger. Taking a deep breath or counting to 5 (or 10) gives the rational part of the brain a chance to catch up with the emotional center, the amygdala.
- Make a plan. The use of coping mechanisms such as breathing techniques, visualizations, or other relaxation methods on a regular basis helps us control intense emotions and can prevent emotional meltdowns.
How to teach infants, toddlers, and preschoolers emotional regulation skills (at home and at school)
Infants under 2.5 years old are generally unable to regulate their emotions on their own and require assistance from parents and other caregivers to get their emotions under control. Activities that encourage emotional regulation and build emotional awareness in toddlers and pre-schoolers can be included in their home and school routine.
Here’s a list of activities that promote emotional regulation:
- Mood meter: Let your kids place a marker on a poster showing different emotions. This encourages them to assess their feelings and recognize them. This tool is also great for kids who are non-verbal.
- Body scan: To do a body scan, kids lie down quietly with their eyes closed and focus on their emotions and how their body feels. They will learn that emotions often have a physical response, for example, a rapid heartbeat may indicate excitement or fear. You can use a body poster to discuss these feelings in detail.
- Flash cards: Flash cards that show facial expressions help kids recognize emotions in others. You can use the cards to discuss emotions and how to manage them.
- Breathing: There are many different breathing and relaxation techniques that can help kids de-escalate when they are getting emotional. Dragon breathing is an easy technique for young kids.
- Mirror time: Using a mirror creates self-awareness and brings the child into the present, allowing them to be more mindful of how they’re behaving.
- Emotion charades: In the classroom, kids can take turns acting out an emotion while their classmates guess the feeling. In this game, kids don’t use words-instead, they use expressions and body language.
- Guess the feeling: Ask your child to guess what the characters in books or their favorite TV show are feeling. This activity focuses on recognizing emotions in others-an important tool for socialization and empathy.
- Quiet corner: A quiet corner in a classroom or bedroom provides a safe space for an emotionally overwhelmed child to calm down. By acknowledging that all feelings are okay and normalizing the need for self-care, children can confidently express their feelings. A pillow or a beanbag, stress balls, a lava lamp, books about emotions, and a timer can all be useful in this space.
Children who have ongoing difficulty regulating their emotions may benefit from emotional regulation therapy. Alexithymia, or difficulty in processing and describing one’s own emotions, is quite a common trait in autistic individuals and requires a specialized therapeutic approach.
Self-regulation is the ability to manage your thoughts and feelings to enable goal-directed behavior. While self-regulation is a personal skill, it develops through interaction with caregivers such as parents, teachers, and coaches. As a component of self-regulation, emotional regulation happens when you’re able to recognize your feelings without allowing them to overwhelm you.
Research emphasizes that this important skill serves as a foundation for lifelong functioning in areas as varied as emotional well-being, physical health, and academic achievement. This is a learned skill and can be strengthened throughout life. It can also be negatively affected by prolonged stress and adversity.
Self-regulation strategies for kids
These are a few effective strategies to help kids self-regulate.
- Practice self-control with games. Games that include taking turns, keeping still, and co-operative play all improve self-control.
- Keep a busy book. Children can write down their thoughts and questions rather than shouting them out or interrupting.
- Visual reminders. Posters, pictures, and notes can remind children of self-regulation tools and techniques.
- Breathing breaks. Deep breathing regulates our sympathetic nervous system. Good breathing techniques are important self-regulation tools.
- Mindfulness and self-reflection practice. Give children opportunities to be in the moment.
- Ability to vent. Screaming, shouting, or roaring in a safe space acts as an outlet for pent-up emotions.
What is co-regulation in parenting and how does it help?
Co-regulation is the supportive process between caregiving adults and children that fosters self-regulation. Caregivers help children by providing a warm and responsive relationship, creating a safe physical and emotional environment, and teaching self-regulation skills.
To be able to co-regulate successfully, adults need to pay attention to their own ability to self-regulate. Having support from other parents, teachers, coaches, and professionals can ensure that as a parent, you are able to model the type of behavior you’re trying to teach your kids.
When we co-regulate, we provide tools and techniques to support our kid’s emotional regulation, whereas in self-regulation, we are able to manage our emotions ourselves.
Research studies emphasize the importance of emotional connection. The still face experiment shows our need for connection from very early in life.
Helping kids identify and manage their emotions is one of the most important things we can do as parents and teachers. A child that can recognize how they’re feeling and take positive steps to manage their emotions is a child well-equipped to cope with life.