A tantrum ensues when a child is told they cannot have a snack before dinner. A child screams at the top of their lungs when their sibling takes their toy. When a child drops their ice cream cone on the ground, they melt into tears. These are all examples of common everyday experiences for many parents. What may be less obvious is that these are also examples of how emotion regulation manifests itself in everyday life with children. How children manage their emotions (especially the difficult ones) plays a big role in our families’ lives. The difference between a peaceful afternoon outing and a stressful event that leaves us all wanting to rush home can hinge on how well children manage their emotions. Helping children learn emotion regulation is also a crucial aspect of our parenting role.
Emotion Regulation: A Key Skill
Our ability to manage and regulate our emotions is not a skill we are just born knowing how to do. It is learned through interactions with caregivers and life experiences. Emotion regulation generally refers to an individual’s ability to monitor and modify their emotional reactions, typically so that they can better meet their goals. As children mature, they generally become more and more skilled at regulating their emotions. We help this process along by first becoming an outside source of regulation for them and then by offering them cognitive tools for helping to manage their emotions.
Helping children learn emotion regulation skills is crucial to their emotional and mental health. Not being able to regulate one’s emotions well can mean an individual experiences a lot of emotional dysregulation. Emotional dysregulation has been linked to higher rates of anxiety, even among children and adolescents. One of our crucial roles as parents, then, is to help foster our children’s emotional development in this area.
Ways Parents can Foster Emotion Regulation
Emotion regulation is one of those sets of skills that do not develop in a vacuum. Without modeling and care from parents or other caregivers, children do not learn these skills independently very well. However, fostering emotion regulation skills in our children does not have to be a complex, arduous task. These skills are best learned through our daily, typical interactions with our children.
Supportive reactions: It is not uncommon for children to have big, emotional reactions to events or distress they experience. Your toddler may have an emotional outburst in a store when told they cannot get a new toy. Even your adolescent might experience an emotional meltdown after not making the basketball team or losing their chess match. How we react to their big emotions, however, can influence the development of their emotion regulation skills. Fascinating research shows that when parents react in supportive ways to children’s negative emotions at age 5, the children tend to have better emotion regulation skills at age 10. In other words, parents’ supportive reactions influence the development of children’s skills over time. Scholars believe that parents’ supportive reactions aid children in developing appropriate responses and ways of calming down when they are emotionally agitated.
Understandably, many parents find it challenging to respond in a supportive way when children are having an emotional outburst or expressing a lot of negative emotions. Offering a supportive reaction to our children’s emotions does not imply that we need to condone inappropriate behavior. While allowing for their emotions, we can still set boundaries on any behavior that may be dangerous or inappropriate. Making this distinction between allowing their difficult emotions to emerge while still setting limits on their behavior is ultimately one step towards helping them learn how to better manage their emotions.
Teach cognitive strategies: The idea that there are mental “tools” that we can use to help manage our emotions is a concept that some of us may not have learned during childhood. Through our maturation process, we may have learned cognitive strategies that help us manage our emotions, but oftentimes they are not discussed openly with children. By making these intangible skills more apparent to children, we can foster their emotion regulation.
One helpful cognitive strategy that has emerged from recent research is the concept of self-distancing. Studies find that when faced with a frustrating task (that likely will provoke difficult emotions), children who are able to self-distance tend to regulate their emotions better. Self-distancing involves encouraging the child to imagine themselves and their situation from the perspective of an imaginary character (e.g., Batman, a favorite cartoon character, etc.). The belief is that this use of imagination may help provide enough mental “distance” between the child and the frustrating task that they will be able to persist and remain emotionally regulated. Studies find that this self-distancing strategy does, indeed, foster greater emotion regulation in children.
This research, of course, has very usable implications for parents and families. When children are experiencing difficult emotions, especially frustration or anger, we can encourage this self-distancing strategy. Research shows that this strategy is especially effective with younger children or those who struggle with emotion regulation (regardless of age) or executive functioning skills.
If you’ve ever tried to find something positive about a difficult situation, then you’ve used the strategy of cognitive reappraisal. The concept of reappraisal is based on the idea that our emotions are often provoked by how we think about a given situation. Our interpretation of the event has a lot to do with how we respond and feel. Thus, if we can alter our interpretation, or appraisal, of the situation, we can change our emotions about it. Research shows that this seemingly simple strategy can be very effective in helping individuals regulate their emotions.
Although adults may spontaneously use reappraisal to help regulate their emotions, children often do not yet have these skills. We can help them learn this useful skill by suggesting a reappraisal of a situation when children are experiencing something difficult. For example, if your child failed to make the basketball team, you could suggest a reappraisal that although
they didn’t make the team, now they have more time to participate in the robotics club that they enjoy. Similarly, if your child is sad because their holiday break from school is ending, you could suggest a reappraisal that helps them see that with school back in session, they get to see their friends more.
It’s important to note that cognitive reappraisal is not meant to distract or invalidate children’s emotions. It’s simply a cognitive tool for helping them see a difficult situation in a new light. It’s helpful to continue to validate your child’s feelings and allow them to express their emotions, even if they are difficult or negative.
Parents as Models of Emotion Regulation
As with many aspects of parenting, the model we provide our children for emotion regulation is key. When we are able to model managing our emotions well and remaining calm in the face of challenges, our children will absorb these skills as well. Although no parent is perfect, the intention we put forth to regulate our own emotions will help our children learn how to manage theirs as well.
Preview Blurb: Does your child “lose it” when they get frustrated or disappointed? Are tears and yelling a mainstay of your household? All children lack emotion regulation skills, especially at younger ages. However, learning strategies for managing and calming big emotions is key to children’s well-being. Read on to discover easy but meaningful ways you can foster emotion regulation skills in your children and perhaps just boost your own skills as well.
The information provided on this site is NOT medical advice and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, provide medical or behavioral advice, treat, prevent, or cure any disease, condition, or behavior. You should consult with a qualified healthcare professional regarding your child’s development to make a medical diagnosis, determine a treatment for a medical condition, or obtain other related advice.