Emotional self-regulation is more than compliance or adhering to the rules. Healthy emotional regulation means that a person is able to exercise self-control and do what is expected of them even when no one Is around to see it. Emotional regulation teaches children delayed gratification, to think about the consequences of their actions, and pay more attention to rules, regulations and what is happening around them.
Do what I do, not what I say
Most of us have heard the saying Do what I say, not what I do. Sadly, this philosophy is a bit backward. People in general and more specifically children, learn the best through observation. They watch you all the time. They are watching to see what you are going to do next, how you react to certain situations, and your responses to unexpected comments or circumstances.
Children take their cues from you, their parent. In some ways, children are like mirrors; they regularly reflect back to us, our behaviors, viewpoints, and emotions. Children do this by behaving in a similar way. All of a sudden, we find ourselves dealing with a child who has become more vocal than we are accustomed to. This can easily be a red flag to check our own behaviors and emotional regulation.
Since our children learn more from our actions than our words, we need to show them how to regulate their emotions. We do this in several ways:
1 Emotional reflection as part of healthy emotional regulation
One of the first things we can do to teach our children healthy emotional regulation is to help them understand their emotions. Emotional reflections happen when adults identify the emotion a child is experiencing and reflect that emotion with words and empathy. As a result, children feel heard and understood; they learn the words that best describe their feelings; emotions are seen as normal; differentiate between various emotions, begin to apply the right words when talking to others about their emotions.
One of the best things a parent can do in helping their child understands emotions is to be quick to observe and slower to speak. Observation helps a parent to gain a better understanding of what is happening in the child’s world and what emotions are being triggered. Notice all the emotions in order to help you child understand that both positive and negative emotions are part of life.
When you have identified what you think your child is feeling, reflect it back to them using empathy and a variety of words suitable to expressing that emotion. For more on emotional reflections see here.
2 Emotions are part of life and a part of healthy emotional regulation
Teaching our children that emotions are part of life plays a big role in healthy emotional regulation. Often the way we teach our children to accept emotions or reject them is in our response to their feelings.
While hitting, biting, or throwing things out of anger or frustration is not socially acceptable and should be redirected towards a more acceptable outlet, children should not be “punished” for having feelings. Emotions are neutral; the way we handle them is where the issue tends to lie.
Instead of giving children a “timeout” perhaps try creating a safe place where they can have some space to compose themselves. This could be a special area of the house that is used for some “alone time”. It may be a good idea to have a space that is dedicated to calming down perhaps a play tent. Other alternatives may include giving your child some calming tools such as a book to read, a glitter jar (which holds a glitter fluid your child can watch to calm down), or some other activities that will result in calming your child down.
3 Be accessible
During an emotional situation, your child needs to know that they can run to you for support. In that moment of being overwhelmed with emotion, you can pull your child into a warm loving embrace while reassuring them quietly with your words. Adapt this to suit your child’s needs and preferences.
Regardless of physical touch or affirmation, send your child the message that you are available and supportive.
4 Regulate your own emotions
Our children are not the only ones who can get overwhelmed with emotions. We do too. As adults and parents, we can easily be overcome with emotions that seem larger than us leaving us doubting ourselves, afraid of failure, stressed, disappointed or angry.
One of the best ways to teach your child healthy emotional regulation is to have your own “time out” when your emotions are overwhelming you. When it comes to teaching respect for others and oneself, let your child see you respecting them and others. The same applies to anger management, yelling, etc.
Regulating your own emotions will also encourage your child that you are able to meet both their needs and yours. As a result, they will feel safe to come to you with their fears and tears. They have the assurance that they don’t have to be in charge because you are handling it.
Considering that the human brain takes about 25 years to mature fully, we can extend grace and patience to our children knowing that in time all our efforts to raise them into healthy and whole adults will pay off.
Parenting is a process. Teaching healthy emotional regulation is part of that process. In the meantime, give both yourself and your child the grace to learn from each other and grow together. The rewards will be bountiful and rich in due time.
Kids Matter. Coping skills for managing emotions. http://www.kidsmatter.edu.au/mental-health-matters/social-and-emotional-learning/emotional-development/coping-skills-managing
Markham, Laura Ph.D. 2015. 6 Steps to help kids learn to control their emotions. AHA Parenting http://www.ahaparenting.com/blog/How_Kids_Learn_to_Control_Their_Emotions
O’Dowd, Yvette. 2015. Emotional Regulation – 6 Ways To Teach It To Your Child. BellyBelly.com.au http://www.bellybelly.com.au/parenting/emotional-regulation/