Being able to understand and manage emotions is can be very challenging for a child. It requires a range of skills that need to be taught by an adult.
Learning emotional regulation skills takes time. For children, the development of their self regulation skills starts from when they are infants. Throughout their childhood, they develop different skills and continue to develop their emotional regulation in adolescents and into adulthood.
For young children, the role of parents, caregivers, and other adults in a child’s life is crucial to their future emotional regulation. The way that the child is nurtured and cared for from a very early age will have a strong impact on whether they later struggle with self regulation problems.
What is emotional regulation?
Emotional Regulation is “an awareness and understanding of one’s emotions and their impact on behavior, and the ability to manage those emotions in a positive way.” (Spokane Regional Health District, n.d.).
Helping your child recognize their big feelings, whether they are negative emotions or not, is important for your child’s ability to develop self awareness of their own emotions.
Once they develop self awareness, they can start to develop emotional intelligence and know how their feelings and behaviors have an impact on other people. If they have negative emotional reactions, this can change the way other people think and feel about them.
Additionally, emotional regulation also includes developing effective coping strategies, especially when they are experiencing intense emotions. Each person is going to have a different toolbox of coping strategies that work well for them. Therefore, some young children may need support from parents to be exposed to different effective coping strategies and see which ones work best for them.
Benefits of emotional regulation for children
The development of emotional regulation in children is important for the child, their relationship with others, and also their ability to learn and work in society.
Being able to have self-awareness of their own emotions is an important part of emotional regulation. This will help them develop the ability to identify, understand and manage how they are feeling at any given time throughout their day.
Relationships with others
Developing emotional intelligence and knowing how our emotions affect one another is crucial for developing healthy relationships. For example, what starts out as a small disagreement over sharing toys with another child could be ended by teaching them to use words instead of using physical force or acting out in anger.
For children that struggle with developing the ability to self regulate their emotions, they may experience anxious feelings more often. This can lead to difficulties when they are in social situations, anxious feelings about going to school, difficulty sleeping, and more.
Emotionally intelligent school age children have a sense of emotional security which enables them to feel confident and able to learn effectively. This is one of the most important factors for academic achievement as well as building a sense of self that can be carried through to adulthood. Indeed, older children who are able to have emotional control of their feelings not only do better with self regulation in a classroom setting but also are less susceptible to potential mental health issues in the future.
Hand Model of the Brain
Dr. Dan Siegel, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, developed the Hand Model of the Brain. This uses the hand to explain the brain structure and what happens when we experience intense emotions.
In short, our brain is divided into the upstairs and the downstairs brain. The upstairs brain is the logical part of the brain where we do all our reasoning. The downstairs brain is our emotional brain.
Typically, when we are well regulated, our upstairs and downstair brains are connected and can communicate with each other.
However, when we start to experience strong feelings, or when we are very dysregulated, our upstairs brain is separated from our downstairs brain, meaning that they are not connected and cannot communicate with each other anymore.
When we experience emotional dysregulation, our downstairs brain is working but we have trouble understanding logic, including how we might make other people feel.
Understanding the body’s nervous system, including how our brain works, helps us as adults to know how to support our children when they are experiencing these strong feelings.
Develop a calming toolbox
Each person has their own strategies that work best for them to help them calm down. As children learn to self regulate, it is important for them to start adding “tools” into their “toolbox”.
As adults, we might offer some calming tools, but it is important for the child to test them out and see if they work for them or not.
Before we trial any calming tools, it is important to offer them when your child is feeling regulated. When your child is emotionally dysregulated, their upstairs and downstairs brain are not talking to each other, and therefore these tools may not be as effective.
Tools in the calming toolbox might include:
- Have a drink of water
- Ask for a break
- Go for a walk
- Have a snack
- Talk to a friend
- Rest in the quiet corner
- Draw a picture
- Blow bubbles
- Count to 10
How to help your child regulate their emotions?
Apart from helping children develop their calming strategy toolbox, it is important for adults to provide a safe environment for children to express their emotions and learn appropriate ways to manage difficult emotions.
There are a few important skills that as adults, it is important for us to remember when teaching our kids how to regulate their emotions.
Regulate our emotions
When we teach kids how to regulate their emotions, it is important for us to regulate our emotions. At certain times, this can be very hard, especially if you and your child are both experiencing intense emotions.
In this case, it is okay to have a time out and do some deep breathing yourself.
Kids learn emotional regulation from adults, whether consciously or unconsciously. As adults, we might think we can hide it well, but children still look towards us to see how we cope with situations.
Therefore, if you and your child are both having intense emotions, take a time out and regulate yourself. When you feel more regulated, you can then help your child deal with their big feelings.
Use a calm voice
It is important to use a calm voice when communicating with your child. When we are upset, the natural tendency is to raise our voices and speak more aggressively.
This can be heard by children as yelling. If you feel like you might get angry or yell at your child, it maybe best to take a time out until you both have calmed down. Once you come back together again, take some deep breaths and use a calm voice while talking through what happened.
Create a supportive environment
Although your child might have difficulty with self control and regulating their emotions, it is important to be patient and supportive. Like we previously mentioned, adults should model the way and set a good example for how kids can deal with their feelings in an effective manner.
However, it is also okay to acknowledge that your child might have difficulty controlling their emotions or coping with intense feelings. Instead of making them feel bad about themselves, provide reassurance that it takes time to learn new skills and that you are always available when they need you.
Be aware of what sets off your child’s big emotions
We all know what sets us off emotionally, whether this is something small or something more significant. However, our children are not always aware of what sets work up inside of them.
It is important as adults, to be aware of what sets off your child. Is it a certain situation? A type of person? Maybe a loud noise or being too busy? Sometimes it could be a build up of multiple factors adding up.
Ask them how they feel and help them determine what they need in order to feel better.
For children who struggle with regulating their emotions, it is okay for us as adults to ask them how they are feeling before we try and help our kids deal with their big emotions.
It is important for us to keep in mind that they might not know how they are feeling or why they feel a certain way.
You can let them know that you notice when they have big feelings and it’s okay for them to express themselves with words, drawings or through physical activity such as running around outside.
Emotional Regulation and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
Children who have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) can experience difficulty with emotional control. They may experience emotions more intensely (Understood, n.d.). Because of this, it can be hard to manage their own feelings.
They may also have trouble problem solving the situation and finding appropriate ways to manage their emotions. They may need additional support from parents to problem solve each situation.
As your child grows, they will start to develop these social skills, begin learning self regulation skills, and problem solving skills to help them manage their emotions.
Emotional Regulation and Autism Spectrum Disorder
Children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have trouble with social skills, whether it is social interaction, reading social cues, or developing friendships.
Emotional development can be hard for children with ASD as they may not be self aware of their own feelings, read other people’s emotions, and then use this information to deduce how to respond in an appropriate way. Many kids with ASD require explicit teaching to learn these emotion regulation skills.
Emotion self regulation skills are crucial for social development and for positive mental health. Learning emotional self regulation skills early in life can help children understand their emotions, manage negative emotions in a positive manner, and further improve their social skills.
As an adult, it is important for us to understand brain development and how we can support our children and children’s emotions when they are experiencing different emotions.
ADHD and Emotions | Understood – For learning and thinking differences. Retrieved 9 November 2021, from https://www.understood.org/articles/en/adhd-and-emotions-what-you-need-to-know