Emotional Regulation and Your Child

How to help your little ones navigate complicated emotions

By Cassandra Harms

Emotional regulation is one of the most important aspects of having a quality life. The skill of knowing how to self soothe and manage intense emotions affects all aspects of our lives. For instance, if one of our children melts down constantly, this can cause strain on the family unit. Likewise, if our child has trouble being flexible or tantrums every time a playdate does not go their way, it will be difficult for the child to have friends.

When children are in a classroom and they are easily frustrated, those big emotions will get in the way of learning. We know that children who can manage and regulate their emotions tend to be more resilient and are better at problem-solving than their peers who cannot modulate their emotions. Research also indicates that children who learn this skill at an early age are less at risk for more serious mental health issues because they tend to be more adaptable individuals.

We are not born with emotional regulation, it is definitely a skill we need to learn as we grow. Temperament does play a role, but does not define whether or not your child can learn these skills. Understanding our vulnerabilities is an important part of taking care of ourselves in this way. When infants are upset, we check to see if they are hungry, need a diaper change, or are tired. While this seems simple, as children get a bit older, helping them do an internal checklist like this when they start to feel bad can help reduce meltdowns. The checklist might include, Am I hungry, thirsty, tired, ill, or worried?

Understanding that we are more prone to meltdowns when we are vulnerable in one of these ways helps us plan ahead. Parents can model for young children by saying something like, “Mommy did not sleep well last night, so I’m feeling a little cranky today.” Or “Can you wait with that question until I get a snack? When I am hungry, I sometimes feel grumpy.”

Another way to help teach your children to observe and communicate their emotions is through using a scale. The incredible 5-point scale is a great resource that many classrooms use to teach kids how to regulate their bodies and emotions. It helps them understand with numbers, colors and facial expressions what their emotions might be at any given moment. I encourage parents to use the scale with the whole family to develop a natural emotional language. I encourage parents to ask even when children are in a good space to get them used to using the scale.

When your child is melting down remember to remain neutral and save the conversation for when your child has calmed down. When our emotions are high, we are not able to listen or take the perspective of another person. Instead, focus on getting the child to a safe place where they can work through their emotions on their own.

If the child continues to engage you in a negative way, do your best to mirror their feelings, and let them know that you will be happy to talk with them when they are calm. For example, a parent might say, “I see that you are disappointed, once you calm down we can talk about it.” Parents who validate, accept and empathize with their children’s negative emotions tend to affect their children’s emotional regulation in a positive way.

Things to remember:

  • Learning to manage emotions is a skill we all need to learn to be resilient and to have a quality life.
  • Understand your own vulnerabilities and communicate those with your child.
  • Post a scale in your house like, “The incredible 5-point scale” to help make talking about emotions easy.
  • When your child is experiencing a tantrum, stay calm and save the conversation until they have calmed down. Instead, validate, accept and empathize.

Cassandra Harms is a Licensed Marriage and Child Therapist at The Center for Developing Minds in Los Gatos, California.

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