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Key Takeaways:

  • Emotional regulation is our ability to manage and control our emotions.
  • Emotional regulation helps children with various life skills, including making friends, learning in school, and making decisions.
  • Caregivers can help kids with emotional regulation, but in other cases, it may be best to see a professional.

If you’re a parent or a guardian, then you might be familiar with how much your children’s emotions can change. A child’s emotions can shift from happy to loving and anger and frustration in mere seconds. It can sometimes happen so quickly that you wonder what triggered it. While some of this is normal, other times, it is a sign that your child struggles with emotional regulation. Emotional regulation for kids can be challenging, but we’re here to guide you in understanding your children’s emotions better.

What is Emotional Regulation?

Emotional regulation is essentially our ability to manage our emotions. This is also sometimes called emotional self-regulation.

We experience many emotions daily, whether that’s happy, sad, angry, disappointed, or others. These emotions are a response to our thoughts, feelings, and what is happening in our environment. Everybody is different, so the same thing could happen to two people, and they could feel completely different emotions! For example, if a family is expecting a new baby, one child might feel very happy, while another sibling could feel worried and upset about the change.

Emotional regulation is a skill that many of us learn from childhood and as we grow up into adulthood.

For instance, your child may spill their drink and be very upset. As they grow up, they can develop and master the part of the brain that controls emotions, and they are no longer upset by the incident. Instead, they learn to pick up the cup, clean the mess, and get a new drink. Every child is different, so it may be easy for one to self-regulate while others struggle to manage their emotions. It’s important to remember that anyone, child or adult, can sometimes have difficulties with regulating their emotions.

As you learn how to support your child in regulating their emotions, it is also important that you are aware of your own emotions, your reaction to them, and how they can affect your child’s emotions (also called co-regulating).

Understanding Children’s Emotions

Often, children will experience stronger emotions than adults. But why is this often (not always) the case?

Appraisal theory of emotion [*] tells us that how a person responds emotionally to their circumstances depends on whether the stimulus matches their goals and expectations and what it implies for their wellbeing. How strong a person’s emotional reaction will be depends on how personally important the situation is to the person and how good or bad the person perceives the situation to be.

Due to children’s limited life experience, they often interpret their circumstances using all-or-nothing thinking or black-and-white terms. Because of this tendency, children’s emotions are stronger and often purely positive or negative compared to the more nuanced emotions adults will feel about the same situation.

Since children’s brains are still developing, they are still building the skills and capacity to understand and regulate their emotions better.

Why is Emotional Regulation Important in Children?

Since our emotions strongly influence our thoughts and feelings, emotional regulation is crucial. We decide what to do in a given scenario based on our thoughts and feelings. In other words, our behavior is influenced by our thoughts and feelings.

Instead of responding on impulse and making decisions we could come to regret, we can make wise decisions if we can learn to control our emotions. Making wise decisions eases our lives and promotes mental wellness.

As children grow, emotional regulation helps them:

  • Make friends. Emotional regulation teaches your child to take turns in conversation and games, share toys, and express emotions appropriately.
  • Learn at school. Emotional regulation allows your child to sit and listen in the classroom.
  • Behave in socially acceptable ways. Emotional regulation allows your child to control their impulses.
  • Become more independent. Emotional regulation teaches your child to make decisions about their behavior and how to behave in new situations with less guidance from you as their parent or guardian.

How Can I Identify Signs of Emotional Dysregulation in My Child?

There are several signs of emotional dysregulation in children to watch out for. These include:

  • Severe tantrums
  • Outbursts
  • Refusal to engage in expected behaviors and activities
  • Low tolerance for frustration
  • Frequent crying
  • Frequent negative moods
  • Aggression
  • Thoughts of self-harm

Why Do Some Kids Struggle with Emotional Regulation?

Some children may struggle with emotional regulation depending on the combination of their temperament and learned behavior. This is because emotional regulation is highly dependent on our personalities. For instance, some children have trouble self-soothing and get very distressed when their parents or guardians try to bathe or clothe them. Such children may experience more difficulty regulating emotions when they are older.

The environment also plays a role in children’s emotional regulation. For example, children have difficulty developing self-discipline when parents always give in to tantrums. In these situations, children look to their parents as external self-regulators. If children can depend on others to regulate their emotions for them, then it may develop into a habit as they grow older.

Other conditions may also play a part in the challenge of emotional regulation in kids. Children with ADHD or anxiety may find it particularly difficult to manage their emotions, and they may require more help to develop emotional regulation skills. This is where DBT emotional regulation skills may come in handy, something a professional can help your child with. You can also use a handout as supplementary material at home.

How to Help a Child Regulate Their Emotions

There are many ways you can help your child regulate their emotions.

Start early

Starting early can help teach your child about feelings and emotions more effectively. Caregivers, parents, and guardians can start talking about feelings when their children are still babies. They can continue doing so throughout the child’s development. Ways to do this include talking about book or movie characters and what emotions they are displaying, whether that’s sad, angry, happy, or worried.

Teach them about their emotions

Naming one’s emotions is essential to understanding them. You can help your child regulate their emotions by teaching them how to recognize and name them. You can use feelings worksheets for this. This is best done when your child is calm and level-headed rather than when emotions are running high. If your child is prone to outbursts or tantrums, then using calm-down strategies for kids may help.

Model good behavior

Children often learn by modeling what their parents do rather than listening to what they say. If you want your child to have better emotional regulation strategies and skills, then it is also important for you to regulate your emotions when interacting with your kids. For instance, you may use DBT grounding techniques such as breathing to manage your emotions when you feel anxious or upset. Your child will learn that an outburst is not the appropriate reaction to that same feeling and will model your behavior.

Roleplay

Roleplaying demonstrates to your kids that there are ways to manage emotions in situations that may be stressful or upsetting. When your child is calm, talk to them about some ways they can handle a tricky situation.

Let’s say they pushed a classmate who had a toy they wanted to play with. When things are calm, tell them what they could’ve done differently, such as talking to the teacher, asking the classmate to take turns, or finding another toy to play with. Doing so can help your child develop problem-solving skills and an awareness of their feelings. After you talk to them about the scenario, try acting it out so they can practice.

Whenever your child is confronted with upsetting emotions that may lead to harmful behaviors, you can also encourage them to take the opposite action.

Praise more than you punish

It can be tempting to punish bad behavior. However, this may only worsen things for a child still learning to regulate their emotions. Try giving positive attention, praise, and rewards when your child displays good emotional management and control. This reinforces good behavior and teaches your child that they will not get rewarded for tantrums or outbursts.

Teach coping skills

Another way to help kids is by teaching them the right coping skills to regulate their emotions. Developing coping skills like self-awareness, grounding exercises, or simply taking a break can help children face challenges, disappointments, and even failures. These skills will lead to resiliency, which is essential to becoming a well-regulated adult.

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are some commonly asked questions about emotional regulation for kids.

At what age should I start teaching my child about emotional regulation?

Teaching emotional regulation should start as early as infancy as babies can explore the world by understanding social cues or situations. By the time children are three years old, they can already label and recognize emotions and identify them in different situations.

What do I do if my child is resistant to talking about their emotions?

Continue modeling good behavior with emotional management and create a safe space for them to open up when they feel like it. Praise your child when they do talk about their feelings or express them appropriately.

What should I do if my child's emotional regulation challenges persist?

Helping kids manage their emotions on your own is challenging. If problems persist, then it may be time to see a professional.

The Bottom Line

Emotional regulation for children can be challenging as they are still learning how to do it. Some kids may have more difficulty than others depending on various factors, such as their environment, personality and temperament, and other conditions like ADHD. In such cases, consulting a mental health professional may be the best course of action.

References:

  1. Moors A. Appraisal Theory of Emotion. 2 March 2017.

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