What is emotional regulation?
Emotional regulation is about managing our emotions in a healthy way. We learn emotion regulation as children by watching how our caregivers handle their emotions, and how our caregivers help us with our emotions. As parents, emotional regulation is one of the most important skills we can help our child to develop.
What are the benefits of emotional regulation?
- This leads to better choices
- Short-term positive feelings
- Improves long-term emotional wellbeing
- Improves performance
- Improves relationships
- Less likely to regret reactions
- Increases compassion
How do you regulate your emotions?
Some reasons we may become emotionally deregulated are because of negative childhood experiences, or if we haven’t taken care of our own needs as parents. When we are emotionally dysregulated, we are in a state of fight or flight, and our prefrontal cortex, which is what helps us to emotionally regulate and make decisions, is not active. Some ways we can improve our ability to emotionally regulate are:
- By identifying and giving our emotions a name when they arise
- Eating and drinking properly
- Talking to a trusted person
- Writing in a journal
- Noticing negative thoughts before they turn into negative emotion
- Listening to when our body needs a break
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We can brainstorm some thoughts about what triggers emotional dysregulation for us. We can think about what beliefs we have and what thoughts come up. Some questions we can ask ourselves are:
- What am I afraid of?
- Why does that make me feel angry?
- Why am I embarrassed by that?
- What is it that is really triggering me?
- How important will this be tomorrow?
- What triggers it? what is the situation?
- What thoughts arise?
- How does my body feel physically?
- How do I feel emotionally?
- How do I react?
An example I have of this is that I used to get really anxious when my toddler would have tantrums at the park because I was worried about what other people would think. When I recognized that, I was able to realise that helping my toddler in those moments is way more important than what people think, and that has really improved the way I feel when my toddler gets upset in public. Instead, I am now able to guide her rather than react.
How To Help Your Child With Emotional Regulation
Notice your own emotions. Identify the emotion, and accept it nonjudgmentally as a wave that comes over you and goes.
Take a moment to yourself if you need. And know that you don’t need to react, you can have space when these emotions come up. We need to tend to ourselves if we are dysregulated. We need to validate how we feel so that we can then help our child regulate. When our emotions are triggered in a strong way we go into fight or flight mode, and this is not the best way to handle situations and model emotional regulation.
Fight or flight mode is helpful when there is a real danger, like if our child was running off and we need to run and get our child to protect them. On the other hand, if our toddler has just poured their food all over the floor, this isn’t a dangerous situation and it is very developmentally normal for our child. But if we received harsh reactions when we were children to these developmentally normal behaviors, then we may feel triggered when our child does it. Or if we are particularly tired because we haven’t been looking after our own emotional or physical well-being, then we may be triggered to respond in a way that is emotionally dysregulated.
Take time to breathe. By focusing on our breathing, the change in our body means that the reflect response decreases and then we are able to use our prefrontal cortex for logical thinking.
Practice self-compassion. Acknowledge the way you feel. Our bodies are telling us that we may need to heal a part of ourselves or we need to take better care of our needs. Here are some examples of things you can say to yourself that may help you to heal and regulate:
- I feel ” emotion” and I am still safe
- Everything is ok
- I am allowed to feel this way, I can give myself time to process
- I am safe, I don’t need to react right now
- How I feel matters, and it is not about my child
- I am able to handle this situation
- I respect myself and I respect my child
- I want to feel good about how I handle this situation
- I am a good parent and my child is a good child
- My child and I are on the same team
Pay attention to your physical needs. This can cause us to react in ways that we wouldn’t necessarily have if our needs were better met. Such as:
- Am I hungry?
- Am I tired?
- Have I practiced self-care recently?
Become aware of your interpretation. For example, are you assuming your child is trying to upset you? When we become aware of the negative assumptions we are making, then we are able to turn them around. We can ask ourselves questions such as:
- Is my child forgetting something?
- Am I expecting more from their developmental ability?
- Is my child just learning?
- Is my child just being curious?
- Does my child feel ignored/frustrated/worried?
- Does my child need more clear guidance?
Positive self talk. When we are feeling strong emotions, this can often lead to negative self talk. We need to become aware of how we are speaking to ourselves. We need to be our own biggest supporters. For example, if we often say, “I messed up again” we need to try saying to ourselves, ” I try so hard and I am being self aware”
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Recognise your response is your choice , instead of “you’re making me angry” which puts the child responsible for our emotions, we can say “I am feeling frustrated at the moment and I need a minute” this is modeling self-awareness and emotional regulation.
For example, when my child is trying to push the boundaries I have put into place, this makes me feel vulnerable like my boundaries are being knocked down. This is not my child’s fault, it is because of my personal life and not learning that my boundaries are mine to decide. So when my child is doing this, my instant reaction is to justify my boundaries and get upset. I have to remind myself; I am an adult now, I am safe to decide my boundaries, and they matter. So I speak to myself in this way to regulate myself, then I can state the boundary again, and when my child gets upset by the boundary I can show empathy and help them with their emotions.
The goal is to validate ourselves so we are not suppressing our emotions, we are accepting them and caring for ourselves. Then we are able to respond to our child in a way that is about connection and guidance.
Connect with your child. Now that we have tended to our own emotional needs, we are better for our children. We need to connect with our children and listen to them. When we do this we help them to feel safe with their emotions. We should listen to their point of view so they know they matter even when we need to disagree or hold a boundary. We can acknowledge them; “yes you are feeling upset right now because …, I understand, I would feel the same too”. Here are some other things we can do to help them become regulated:
- Lower your voice
- Slow down your voice
- Come down to their level
- Soften your body language
- Acknowledge how they feel non judgmentally
- Give them space or come close (depending on their body language or wishes)
Coregulate. After you have acknowledged how your child is feeling, this will help them to identify their emotions. Now you can offer some support for ways to regulate. This will give your child tools to use when they are older too. Every child is different so you can discover together which works best for your child. Here are some suggestions:
- Hug them if they want to
- Sing to them if this soothes your child
- Offer them a drink or snack
- Offer them a fidget toy
- Offer to get outside for fresh air
- Practice mindful breathing together
Guide. Once you and your child feel emotionally regulated again, and you have connected, you will be able to brainstorm together a solution. This models positive thinking and problem-solving skills. Was your child upset about homework? now you could come up with a plan. Were they upset because they couldn’t go somewhere? now you could come up with an alternative. If your child is younger, you could turn your attention to another task. You may need to return to this at another time if it doesn’t feel like a good time to talk. Your child will be very grateful for your guidance, and this will help them to feel loved and supported.
Emotional regulation activities
There are 6 key emotions that we feel which are: happiness, anger, scared, sad, worried, and bored. When we practice noticing these emotions with our children as well as practicing the coregulation, we will help to build their emotional regulation skills and they will develop emotional intelligence. We can do some activities with our children to help them understand emotions such as:
- Name the emotions when they arise, for example, “I can see you’re feeling happy about that!”
- Look at a book all about different emotions together
- Practice doing expressions and naming the emotion as a game
- Role-play emotions with toys “teddy is feeling very hungry and grumpy, perhaps he needs an apple!”
It is hard work and it is a lot of practice, and we won’t get it right every time., that’s ok! Most importantly we need to have compassion for ourselves and for our children.