Emotional regulation
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Emotional Regulation for Parents and Kids: Definition and Practical Advice from a Professional

Emotional regulation is a term often used by professionals in the field but also one that is often confused with emotional suppression. That is why, I reached out to Ryann at Harlie’s Haven to learn more about this topic. Continue reading to find out more!

1. What is emotional regulation? What are those skills, specifically?

Emotional regulation often gets confused for suppressing emotions which includes comments like “don’t cry”, “suck it up”, etc. With suppressing emotions, we are often encouraged to hide or hold in visible expressions of “negative” emotions.

Emotional regulation is different in that we give our emotions space to be experienced and processed. For a parent, this can look like providing comfort while a child cries, actively listening when they are angry – holding space, and offering support.

Parents can help their children learn emotional regulation by practicing and teaching the following skills:

  • Provide a calm, safe space to experience the feeling 

This can be challenging if there is a big behavior (ex: tantrum). Use a calm, quiet voice. Have comforting items in the space (ex: smells, weighted blanket or stuffed animals, bubbles, etc). 

A mother comforting a child
Provide a Calm, Safe Space to Experience the Feeling/ Source: Unsplash
  • Identify the feeling 

A feelings wheel, creative expression, social stories, or storytelling can be super helpful here. 

Tip: You can make these activities a family tradition where everyone participates.

  • Explore the somatic experience as well 

Is the child feeling tense? Chest tight? Need to move? Where are they experiencing the feeling in their body, and how can we calm it? 

  • Actively listen & ask what your child needs 

Parents should learn not to listen to respond and immediately jump into “fix it” mode! Instead, listen to what your child is sharing and reflect it back to them. For example, you can say: “It sounds like you’re feeling really overwhelmed right now.” or “That sounds frustrating. How can I help? What do you need?”

Sometimes our kids won’t know what they need, and that’s completely ok! Offer a hug or something that is typically comforting. 

  • Utilize appropriate coping skills to process the emotion 

This can be anything from deep breathing to running around outside. Each child is unique, so their processing methods will be as well. In addition, try not to get discouraged if what you’re doing doesn’t quite work. This part can be trial and error, and what works one time may not work the next. Try to remain flexible.

2. How do emotional regulation skills help in day-to-day life, in school, socially, etc.? 

Learning to regulate rather than suppress emotions has a positive impact on mental health, including decreased anxiety. It can also lead to more positive life outcomes as an adult. During childhood, it enables children to develop self-discipline, emotional intelligence, independence and interpersonal skills.

Dysregulation, on the contrary, can impact behaviors, mental health, quality of life, relationships, social interaction, educational experiences, and brain development. Even statistics show that children with a lack of emotional intelligence are more likely to be bullied throughout their life. For those who are unfamiliar, brain development is impacted by the ability to regulate emotions, including areas responsible for cognitive and executive functioning.

In terms of educational impact, emotional regulation aids obtaining and maintaining engagement/attention, encouraging necessary cognitive processes and the like.

Finally, emotional regulation impacts understanding of experiences as well as how the child will respond, which directly impacts the potential to enjoy life and their behavior. On a side note, parents must understand that every behavior is a form of communication.

3. At what age can we start teaching emotional regulation to our kids?

As early as possible! Babies begin the process of learning regulation, so it’s plausible that skills could be started in an age-appropriate way (holding, comforting, etc). Furthermore, toddlers and preschoolers greatly benefit from learning emotional regulation skills. The younger we start, the more natural regulation becomes.

In the younger years, it will look more like co-regulation and transition to self-regulation as the child ages. In addition, as brain development impacts the ability to self-regulate, teaching emotional regulation at younger ages directly impacts learning, mental health, hormones, and other systems that are still developing.

4. How do we as parents understand our limitations with emotional regulation that perhaps we weren’t taught ourselves?

Learning and growing are lifelong processes. Self-awareness can be incredibly helpful for parents who may not have been given emotional regulation tools.
Additionally, self-awareness can look like identifying triggers, understanding where they come from, and healing them. It can also look like taking a step back, assessing your own reactions to your child’s emotions, and really exploring where that comes from.

In such cases, therapy is a great option because usually there will be layers of unlearning and healing, which can be scary and challenging. Taking the time to learn emotional regulation skills would be highly recommended as well. How can we expect our children to learn how to regulate if we don’t know how?

Nevertheless, I would also like to highlight here that parents should be patient, kind, and gentle with themselves during this process. It isn’t your fault! Take the time to heal and learn. Then, once you know better, do better. Lead by example.

5. What are some practical ways to teach emotional regulation to young kids like 3-4yo and older like first-second graders?

At the age of 3 and 4 until first and second graders, emotional regulation can be taught fairly easily through play, arts and crafts, and reading. Social stories can be great (if they like being read to).

As a previous toddler and preschool teacher, my students and I would make items to help with deep breathing like the fire-breathing dragon.

Imaginative play can also be a great way to explore and identify feelings. I love using creative expression with kids in this age group – singing, dancing, painting, anything that lets them express whatever they want can be very eye-opening.

6. Are there some emotional regulation skills that can be started early in life while others that can only be practiced with older kids?

Skills should definitely be age-appropriate. You can’t expect a 3-year-old to say, “I feel XXX because XXX”, whereas a teenager would be less likely to want to use an emotions puzzle or imaginative play like a younger child.

Keep in mind where your child is developmentally (which can vary based on biological and environmental factors), as well as interests (more likely to engage if there is interest), and your approach (a child who struggles sitting still may do better with body movement than reading a social story).

Be flexible, adapt where you can, and really focus on your child!

In addition, it is always helpful to ask yourself: 

  • How do they learn? (visually, hands-on, auditory, etc)
  • How do they process? (written, verbally, etc) 
  • What are their interests? 
  • How do they behave? 

Dissect what your children are trying to communicate through their behavior. This can help parents learn which skill is needed. 

For example, a kiddo who yells when they are upset may not feel heard. A child who hits may not have the words they need, or it could be a learned behavior.

A kid crying on the floor
A Child Who Hits May Not Have the Words They Need/ Source: Unsplash

7. What are some red flags to watch out for, like specific behaviors or situations that many parents may overlook?

Here are a few to pay close attention to:

1) Pay attention to tantrums, outbursts, and rule-breaking 

Oftentimes, these are the result of communication struggles and/or not having needs met. 

For example, my youngest will talk back and be disrespectful at his other parent’s house whereas at our home he will sit down and talk with me. This is because his needs are met at my home. We have created a safe environment and shown him that expressing his feelings and needs are welcome and wanted. 

2) Withdrawing or isolation can also be a red flag that something is going on 

Your child may have shut down or become numb due to emotional suppression rather than regulation, or they may not feel like it’s ok to come to you. This can also persist in social settings such as daycare or school. 

3) Inability to focus or concentrate, especially on subjects the child is usually interested in

 4) Unusual or numerous fears or worries 

 5) Separation anxiety, struggling with solo play 

 6) Sleep issues 

Nightmares, not staying asleep, trouble falling asleep, not being able to sleep alone, etc. 

7) Struggles with decision making 

8) Significant changes 

a) Behaviors 

b) Appetite 

c) Sleeping 

d) Social interaction 

e) Interests 

A kid crying
Withdrawing or Isolation Can Also Be a Red Flag That Something Is Going On/ Source: Unsplash

Additional potential red flags:

1) Mental Health 

PTSD & GAD diagnostic criteria include “efforts to avoid feelings” and “difficulty controlling worry”, both of which communicate a lack of emotional regulation skills (suppression is present in both). 

What’s more, over 50% of Axis I disorders and 100% of Axis II disorders implicate emotion regulation deficiencies. Axis I  mental health and substance use disorders. Axis II includes personality disorders.  

In the DSM 5, these are not separated into a multi-axial system; however, the disorders are still present.

Anxiety essentially is the lack of emotional regulation as there is a failure to elect an adaptive response or to inhibit a maladaptive response given a situation. 

2) Potential for increased: 

a) Substance use/abuse 

b) Self-harm 

c) Suicidal ideation and attempts 

d) Mental illness (including personality disorders) 

e) Addictions

About Ryann

From a young age, I knew I wanted to help others. After exploring various careers, I finally found my calling when I began my graduate program in clinical mental health counseling. Upon graduating – with high distinction – in 2021, my partner and I opened Harlie’s Haven. We provide a comprehensive set of services to help boost your confidence and offer support as you navigate your personal health and wellness challenges. I work with clients closely in order to achieve measurable results that allow them to push forward with a new, positive mindset.

Ryann from Harlie's Haven
Ryann / Source: Harlie’s Haven
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