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Helping Kids with Emotional Regulation

Posted By  
10:00 AM

If you’re a parent, chances are that you have experienced a tantrum or several in your day.  Most of us expect it in two- and three-year-olds, however if a child that has reached school age continues to have frequent meltdowns and emotional outbursts, they may have difficulty with emotional regulation.

The ability to manage our own emotions when presented with the demands of a situation that are unpleasant or highly upsetting stimuli can be referred to as self-regulation. Being able to keep ourselves calm and adjust to the expectations of our environments can be harder for some children and is a skill that needs to be learned just like tying our shoe laces or reading and writing.

Emotional control issues can be a result of natural temperament, learned behaviour or a strong combination of a both. A child with ADHD, Autism and anxiety may inherently struggle with emotional regulation and those that have been exposed to childhood trauma’s with emotionally unavailable parents/caregivers may also have difficulties.

Emotional self-regulation does not always come naturally and is a skill that needs to be learned. Teaching children to gain control over their bodies and emotions involves one person being present for another through a challenging experience or situation. Many children are often shamed, shunned and made to feel guilty about having an emotional outburst. Comments such as ‘stop crying’ ‘you need to stop’ ‘do you want a smack’ ‘go to time out’ during a meltdown are not always the most helpful. Many adults may be reactive to a child’s outbursts because they may not feel comfortable with powerful feelings themselves or taught that strong emotions are bad.

Teaching a child to self-regulate is done through co-regulation. Co-regulation considers yourself and the child on the same team. A toddler or a child that is having an emotional outburst/tantrum at home, in the store or at school needs help to build these skills.

How is this done you may ask?

  • Co regulation is done through building a relationship with the child through connection.
  • Get on eye level, allow them to state how they are feeling.
  • A younger toddler may need your help with putting their frustrations into words with what they see, do or experience.
  • Acknowledge and validate how they feel.
  • Get into the mind frame that parenting/caregiving is not something you do to a child or just some arbitrary responsibility, but a relationship you have to build.
  • Maintain an environment where all feelings and emotions are allowed.

It is of the utmost importance that you hold awareness for your own state of frustration and emotion by taming yourself. Yes! Children learn mostly by what they see, not always by what you say. Parents and caregivers need to model and be an example of the level of emotional regulation they want to teach. Adults need to self-regulate themselves in order to emulate this skill to children.

Don’t think that you need to be perfect. Yes, adults yell and get frustrated too. Co- regulation is also about teaching children if we miss the mark as well. If you find yourself doing this than acknowledge it afterwards and state it to the child ‘I was upset so I yelled, I am sorry’. This teaches the child that powerful feelings are ok and we can reflect and acknowledge them afterwards.

Be mindful that completely losing control yourself will not help the child. Threatening, punishing and shaming during times when a child experiences heightened emotional reactivity will not help them gain control. Often caregivers will struggle with self -regulation due to fear of judgment from family, friends or onlookers in public as they want to appear to be addressing the child’s outburst and not letting them get away with ‘carrying on with a melt -down’.

Don’t expect immediate pay offs. Through continuous co-regulation children over time will learn to manage discomfort or have the ability to sit with unpleasant demands and experiences and the emotions that come in these situations.

So, the next time you hear and see the signs of anger, frustration and overwhelm just pause and change your thinking to this child is having a hard time, rather than giving you a hard time. Lean in and connect before you correct, pause…... breath…... and model the level of emotional regulation you wish to teach the child. This is teaching them self-regulation through co-regulation.