Teaching Kids About Emotional Regulation

Teach your kids how to get in touch with their emotions and get what they want and need in a respectful, responsible way.(iStockphoto)

What is your present mood? Are you happy, frustrated, annoyed or pleased? Your emotions are your signals that let you know how you’re doing. Similarly, your child’s mood lets you know when your child is satisfied or out of balance.

Before children learn verbal language, their physical and emotional feelings are their language. Their emotional displays are their form of communication to let you know if they are uncomfortable or unhappy.

An infant cries, telling her parents that something is wrong and she needs help. In the beginning, all parenting attempts to help are mere guesses. Is your baby hungry, or uncomfortable because of gas pains or a dirty diaper? Maybe she needs to change her position so she can move her arms and legs because she is too tightly swaddled. Or maybe she has too much space and needs to feel snuggled tight. Eventually new parents begin to better understand their infants’ needs and wants.

Your toddler cries when he falls, letting you know he is hurt or frustrated at his inability to walk faster and further. Your preschooler screams to let you know she is upset and angry that someone else is playing with her coveted toy. Your elementary school child hits another child in retaliation after being hit. Your middle school child stomps away, slamming his bedroom door, making it clear that he is very angry and upset when you say no to a request. And on it goes even into adulthood where some drivers scream and yell at fellow motorists for cutting them off or driving dangerously.

Parents need to honor, respect, and most importantly, listen when children communicate their emotions. This means not only tolerating, but seeking to understand when a baby cries, a toddler whines or a teenager complains.

Not only is it not helpful for parents to become upset, angry or impatient when a child expresses unhappiness, for example, it’s destructive. Too often parents deny their children’s emotions. They might tell the child in the moment not to cry or be angry or upset.

Instead, children should be taught how to listen to and understand the language of their own emotions, which can bolster their emotional and mental health. A parent’s first step in this direction is listening to and honoring a child’s feelings. It is often hard and inconvenient to hear that your child is angry or experiencing hurt feelings. But dismissing these feelings disconnects you from your child. Eventually your child may also learn that her feelings are not important and won’t be listened to.

Attempting to talk your child out of these feelings denies the legitimacy of the child’s emotions. Doing so can be destructive to a child’s relationship with himself, and with his parents. Dismissing and denying your child’s emotional expressions can lead to unhappiness, malaise and mental and emotional pain that might be expressed through temper tantrums, stubborn silences, whining or sudden refusals to cooperate.

Here’s what you can do instead:

When your child expresses her emotions, acknowledge her; make it clear you’re listening. Tell her you hear her. “Sounds like you’re feeling angry and sad. Tell me about what’s going on. Or do you want to spend some alone time to settle yourself?”

When you, the parent, acknowledge that emotions are a kind of language, you’re helping your child understand this also. Many children may want or need you to hug and hold them to soothe and comfort them. Now you can begin to help your child learn to self-soothe, so that he’s able to process his big emotions in chunks, as smaller, more manageable feelings. This becomes a lifelong skill. Just as some babies suck their thumbs to self-sooth, a toddler can hold his favorite doll, rocking the toy and himself into greater calm and comfort. Preteens and teens may listen to music to calm themselves and shift an unpleasant feeling or mood.

Next, when your child is calm, able and old enough to talk about his feelings, you can start helping your child develop the language needed to express these emotions and problem-solve. Now that your child is emotionally able to talk with you, use the Magical Question strategy I developed. Here’s how it works:

Ask your child, “What do you want that you were trying to get by crying?” (or by doing whatever it was the child was doing to express himself emotionally). Then say: “If we can figure out another, more effective way to help you get what you want, are you interested in learning? Are you interested in working it out in a different way?”

Remember, emotions are never a child’s problem. Emotions are the language that lets her know she wants or needs something she doesn’t presently have. Parents need to continue to teach children how to get what they need and want responsibly and respectfully.

Emotional regulation does not mean stopping or controlling a child’s feelings. Emotional regulation means teaching children the purpose of their feelings. It means helping them learn the language of emotions and to use their words to express how they’re feeling.

A child who is able to emotionally regulate can ask himself, “What do I want that I’m trying to get by feeling angry and upset? How can I get what I want in a respectful and responsible way?” This is a child who is not overwhelmed by his emotions. This is a child who knows healthy ways of dealing with his feelings and that this can be done without hurting himself or anyone else. Ultimately, kids who know how to regulate their emotions are more likely to be mentally healthy and happy.

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Nancy Buck, Contributor

Nancy S. Buck, Ph.D., RN is a developmental psychologist, expert in children’s motivation and b…  Read moreNancy S. Buck, Ph.D., RN is a developmental psychologist, expert in children’s motivation and behavior, and parenting coach. She is the founder of Peaceful Parenting Inc. and has been a contributor to U.S. News since 2017 and Psychology Today since 2011. The author of numerous parenting books, including “How to be A Great Parent,” she advises parents on effective practices to improve life for every member of the family. She’s shared her expertise on “Oprah & Friends” and with the Guardian Express, Colorado Radio, The Matt Townsend Show, as well as on various other programs. As an early childhood mental health specialist, Dr. Buck has shared her knowledge and advice with parents around the globe and is devoted to helping families develop, improve and maintain optimal mental health and happiness. You can learn more about Dr. Buck at drnancybuck.com.

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