In case it hasn’t been clear since 2020, life isn’t always sunshine, rainbows, open travel, and fully stocked toilet paper aisles. In fact, sometimes life can be really tough. The struggles we go through, small or big, can be accompanied by strong feelings. A lot of the time, the challenges we face, at least in part, are out of our control. We’re forced to face the hands we’re dealt whether we like it or not.
What we can control is how we react to tough situations and manage the emotions we feel. This emotional regulation is important for relationships, well-being, and growth. And part of a parent or caregiver’s job is to help kids learn the tools they need in order to regulate their emotions—especially when things get difficult, scary, or frustrating.
Because emotional regulation is so important, we wanted an expert’s take on the subject. Here, registered psychologist Rachel Tomlinson shared how and why to teach kids emotional regulation.
What Is Emotional Regulation?
Emotional regulation is one of the pillars of emotional intelligence. According to Tomlinson, not only does emotional regulation mean understanding our emotions, but also being able to process and manage them in an appropriate way. When we first recognize and then process the emotions that come up in our day-to-day lives, we’re able to respond to situations in beneficial ways, instead of being reactionary.
Tomlinson shared, “Regulating your emotions can look like noticing the emotion you are experiencing and then being able to use appropriate strategies to help reduce the intensity of the emotion.” As adults, we have likely been subconsciously practicing (or attempting to practice) this ritual all our lives. However, it is a conscious choice to pause, consider our feelings, and decide how we want to respond. As easy as it is to respond with our initial reaction to a situation, regulating our emotional response can have significant benefits, and it’s something our kids can learn from.
[Emotional regulation] is a conscious choice to pause, consider our feelings, and decide how we want to respond.
While adults have the vocabulary for the emotions they experience, Tomlinson pointed out, kids may not. As children are learning, they will require the help of adults to name their emotions and practice strategies to manage them. Offering this type of support gives kids the opportunity to grow into adults who have healthy ways of coping.
What Emotional Regulation Is Not
Getting rid of or suppressing heavy emotions is not the goal of emotional regulation. In fact, Tomlinson shared that emotions are supposed to be felt. She explained that our emotions give us important messages about our needs and wellbeing. Practicing emotional regulation doesn’t silence our emotions. Rather, it gives us an opportunity to respond to them in an appropriate way.
Practicing emotional regulation doesn’t silence our emotions. Rather, it gives us an opportunity to respond to them in an appropriate way.
Tomlinson stated, “If we miss the message because we are avoiding the feeling (which is not a strategy for emotional regulation), we miss an opportunity to get our needs met, which in turn escalates or feeds into certain emotions and distress.” Emotional regulation gives us an opportunity to have our needs met without using harmful communication.
Why Is Emotional Regulation Important?
It’s no secret that intense emotions can be overwhelming—especially feelings like anxiety, grief, and anger. Utilizing emotional regulation allows us to take back control. According to Tomlinson, regulating our emotions increases our overall well-being and positively impacts our interpersonal relationships.
Tomlinson pointed out that when we’re in control of our emotions, we’re significantly less likely to lash out in stressful situations or attempt to numb our feelings. Both of which can have detrimental effects on our relationships with our loved ones. Taking away reactionary responses to a stressful conversation or situation gives us an opportunity to reflect and respond in a way that is productive and will often lead to a positive outcome. Instead of accidentally lashing out, we actively choose the response we want to give.
Along with relationships, being skilled in emotional regulation can positively impact other parts of our lives. For example, Tomlinson touched on the importance of delayed gratification. She shares that when we deal with the discomfort of having to wait for something, we are actually reducing our chances of falling into things like addiction and increasing the quality of our relationships (romantic or otherwise), our potential educational achievement, and financial security.
How Can We Teach Kids Emotional Regulation?
So exactly how can parents and caregivers teach and practice emotional regulation with kids? Here are some impactful ways Tomlinson suggested to help foster emotional regulation abilities:
- Model Emotional Regulation: We can help foster emotional regulation in our kids by allowing them to see us practicing it ourselves. She explained, “You can name the emotion you are feeling and then narrate or share how you will manage.”
- Name Their Feelings: Because kids don’t always have words for their emotions, it can be helpful for us to name the feelings we see them experiencing.
- Rate the Emotion’s Intensity: It may also be helpful to have them ‘rate’ the level of intensity—this will help them gain an understanding of what coping skills to use in the future.
- Do Emotional Check-ins: It’s a good idea to check in with kids at different points of the day or between activities to see how they’re feeling. Tomlinson shared that check-ins are also great when we notice their emotions changing.
- Practice Coping Skills: We can help them practice coping skills (examples below) and figure out what techniques work for them.
Coping Strategies for Common Kid Emotions
When it comes to feelings of anger, it’s best to release the pent-up energy in a healthy way. Instead of coping in ways that may be harmful to themselves or others, as parents we can offer alternative ways of handling these emotions. Here are some great ways to release energy that doesn’t negatively affect others or the situation.
- If your child resorts to throwing things, encourage a physical activity like star jumps or running.
- If your child resorts to hitting, encourage them to can use their hands by crumpling up paper or squishing Play-Doh.
- If your child resorts to yelling, encourage them to loudly sing their favorite song (this may even bring forth more joyful feelings).
Sadness or Worry
As worries and sadness arise, Tomlinson suggested a more comforting approach.
- If your child resorts to shutting down, offer them a hug, a cuddle session, or their favorite blanket or toy to snuggle.
- If your child becomes overwhelmed, take their mind off of the situation by reading their favorite book or petting an animal.
- If your child resorts to crying, allow them to feel their feelings and let them know it’s okay to cry, but also help guide them through deep breaths until the emotions aren’t so big and scary.
The great news is that emotional regulation techniques are things that can be practiced. Be proactive with your little one by discussing emotions with them before they arise and help them learn positive coping techniques. We can introduce practices like breath work, meditation, affirmations, daily physical activity, and muscle relaxation techniques to actively cope with stressors.