Healthy emotional regulation in children – Part 1

Sophie Elatri Psychologist When it comes to healthy emotional regulation, children need assistance and guidance from their parents or carers in dealing with their emotions. This becomes more important when those emotions become overwhelming. Teaching children healthy emotional regulation goes a long way to helping children have good mental health and social skills. They experience a higher level of satisfaction, success and happiness in life.

What is healthy emotional regulation?

Child psychologists are fast reaching the conclusion that a child’s ability to regulate their emotions in a healthy way is a critical part of their psychological development. In a nutshell, emotional regulation means to be able to constructively think and cope with feelings without being overwhelmed by them. We want our children to be able to express and understand their emotions without those feelings dictating their behavior.

Suppressing emotions is not conducive to healthy emotional regulation. Our children should be able to identify and understand their emotions. From this place, they will be better able to develop a coping strategy in a stressful situation. Healthy emotional regulation encourages your child towards experiencing life to the full with bravery and courage. They learn to engage the world wholeheartedly without numbing out. With this skill, your children will continue to reap the rewards of healthy emotional regulation for a lifetime.

The benefits of emotional regulation

According to Barish, children who are able to regulate their emotions in a constructive and healthy way are able to pay more attention to school and other tasks; work harder; experience more success throughout their life; resolve conflict with their friends in a healthy manner; experience a reduction in psychological stress; show a greater level of empathy and compassion towards others; and behave more appropriately and acceptably.

The chemistry behind emotional regulation

When a child experiences stress, their cortisol and adrenaline hormones shoot sky high causing a range of emotions such as anger, anxiety, fear, and stress. Healthy emotional regulation reduces these hormones by increasing feel-good hormones such as dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. These feel-good hormones are responsible for managing memory and concentration, manage and regulate our hormones, reduce fear while increasing trust, and develop social skills and empathy.

For children, these hormones are released at their optimum when children are able to engage with their situations and circumstances in their own unique way and at their own pace. If not permitted to do so, a child’s cortisol and adrenaline hormones continue to rise causing the child to experience significant stress. This stress makes itself known in various ways such as:

  • Concentration difficulties
  • Unresponsiveness
  • Difficulty expressing themselves
  • Run away in emotionally charged situations
  • Get defensive
  • Be hyperactive
  • Sleep irregularities
  • Irritable, difficult to please, and quick to engage in conflict.

Depending on the age of your child, you may find that often your child does not know how to express their feelings in words. This can increase their frustration. Often the quickest way they can show you something is bothering them is through their behavior.

As they grow older, children develop a more comprehensive vocabulary. At this point, they are able to use their words to express their emotions as they understand them. This is why it is important to teach your children the words they need to explain their emotions.

For example, three-year-old Jim is trying to complete a puzzle but can’t figure out the pieces. In frustration, he starts to cry while pushing the entire puzzle onto the floor. Jim’s mom turns to him and says, Jim, I can see that you are frustrated with your puzzle? What can mommy do to help? Should we build the puzzle together or do you want to try again later?

Creating a safe environment for children to practice emotional regulation

In lieu of the above, we can see that children need reassurance when faced with larger than life emotions. This is where a parent’s reaction can either move a child towards healthy emotional regulation or away from it.

To encourage and help your child learn healthy emotional regulation, you can respond to your child’s emotional outbursts with touching or holding your child. This reduces stress levels and encourages your child to learn how to calm themselves down in the midst of stress.

As a parent, you can also assist your child towards emotional regulation by allowing your child to experience manageable challenges in their everyday lives. These small setbacks and exposure to frustration give them opportunities to practice the various ways they can handle stress and emotion.

Children need to know that they are safe to experience their emotions. They need reassurance that you, their hero and parent, are big enough and strong enough to cope with their emotional meltdowns. The more self-control a parent expresses during emotionally high situations, the safer the child feels. It becomes twofold: 1) the child learns they can trust you with their feelings, 2) the child learns from your example, what emotional self-control looks like.

Healthy emotional regulation is the gateway to a full and rewarding life for your child.

 

Resources

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

Barish, Kenneth Ph.D. 2013. How do children learn to regulate their emotions? Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kenneth-barish-phd/how-do-children-learn-to-_b_3890461.html

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