Teaching a child emotional regulation skills can be challenging, but it’s not impossible. Guest author, Dr. Colleen Russo Johnson, offers tips to make it happen.
- Support children’s lifelong social, emotional, and cognitive growth by empowering them with strategies to regulate their emotions.
- Model your own healthy emotion regulation strategies for children to practice.
- Practice regulation strategies through activities like play and reading as children learn to develop their own emotional regulation skills.
Teaching a Child Emotional Regulation Skills
Falling off a bike, losing a soccer game, receiving an exciting new gift—each of these experiences brings up strong emotions that can be overwhelming for children. Regulating emotions isn’t easy for kids, which is probably no surprise to parents.
Research in brain development helps us understand why. Neuroscience tells us that the prefrontal cortex—a primary area of the brain that helps us manage our emotions—is the last part of the brain to fully develop. It does not reach full maturity until our mid-twenties! This highlights why emotional support is so important in early childhood.
Children need regular practice to learn how to regulate their emotions. This involves understanding feelings, reactions, and also taking into account the context when expressing them. As adults, here’s what we can do to help.
Recognize Where Your Child Needs Support
When does your child have a difficult time managing emotions, and how do they show you? Some children are challenged when they get really excited—this might look like them running around and bouncing off the walls (both literally and figuratively) before a birthday party. Others may be working on managing their angry feelings, which could look like kicking and screaming in protest to bedtime. By learning where and when these moments are for your child, you can help them look for solutions.
Respond to the Emotion, Not the Words
Children can have emotional outbursts and shout out unreasonable phrases like, “You never let me do what I want!” Rather than respond to those types of statements, try to connect with the feelings your child is expressing with words like, “I can see that you are feeling very angry about this.”
Validate Your Child’s Feelings
This can be as simple as, “I know waiting is hard” or “I can see you’re feeling disappointed that it’s clean-up time.” Sometimes just listening to your child can help before you jump into strategies for emotion regulation.
When we acknowledge and validate children’s feelings, we empower them to trust their emotions, deepen their self-understanding, and pay attention to the clues that emotions provide. Stating our children’s emotions in a validating, empathetic tone is particularly helpful for young children who can’t yet verbalize how they are feeling.
Reflect After, Not in the Moment
Talk about appropriate behaviors and positive emotion regulation strategies after the emotional behavior. You want to give your child time to get back to baseline. Discuss what steps they can take to regulate in the future, and encourage them to come up with ideas. By involving them in the process, they’ll be more likely to do it. You can also ask them what they would like you to do in the moment. This is a great way to work together as a team and learn how you can best support your child.
Read Stories About Feelings
It’s important for children to see a range of emotional expressions and nuanced experiences represented in their books and shows. Talk about characters’ responses to big feelings. What do they do when they feel angry, excited, scared, surprised, or overwhelmed? It can really help to see characters we love or admire go through an emotional moment. Then we can use that moment as a learning opportunity.
Practice Emotion Regulation with Games
Playing turn-taking and stop/start games (think freeze dance, red light/green light) can help children build self-control over their bodies. Impulse control is intertwined with emotional regulation. By getting our bodies in control, we can start to notice how it makes us feel, too.
Help Your Child Make a Plan and Practice
We all feel overwhelmed, angry, or out of control at times. Practice expressing those emotions (making sure to pay attention to the body!) and then try out different regulation strategies. Reflect with your child on the strategies they like best, and help them come up with a plan for when they feel challenged. You can even share observations of what you notice working or not working for your child, and then let them make their own choices.
Create a Relaxation Station
Find a corner in your home and make it cozy with a beanbag, blanket, stuffed animal, and other items. You can even add a small basket with things like a stress ball, or calm down jar, which you can make with glitter. You can add anything you want in this space—get your child involved in deciding what should be here. Then use this “me-time” space when your child needs alone time or needs help regulating their emotions.
Model Positive Behavior
Children first learn about emotion regulation through daily interactions with parents and caregivers. They are carefully observing and learning from grown-ups’ expressions of emotions, and what kind of strategies parents use to manage their emotions.
Parents can support children by modeling effective regulation strategies like taking a deep breath and pausing before reacting. When outbursts do occur (As they will, we are not perfect!), it’s always okay to apologize and start over. It helps children learn that regulation takes effort and practice—even grown-ups struggle with it!
In the end, regulating our emotions is tied to many important skills and characteristics, so it makes sense to get kids started at a young age. When we successfully manage our emotions, it helps us be kind to others, reach our goals, accomplish tasks, and sustain healthy relationships. It also helps us manage stress and emotional exhaustion. In many ways, emotion regulation helps us be a better person, both to ourselves and to others.
About the Author
Dr. Colleen Russo Johnson is a nationally recognized developmental psychologist with an expertise in children’s media and technology and the Co-founder of OK Play, an app built for families to create, bond and grow together every day through play (available on iOS or Android). She holds a PhD from Vanderbilt University.
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