Emotional regulation is not something we are born with. Toddlers have no emotional regulation skills. Their emotions can swing like a pendulum. Helping our kids learn to self-regulate is one of the most important tasks in raising children.
This article will address the importance of emotional self-regulation, how it is developed and how we can help our children acquire this crucial skill.
Table of Contents
What Is Emotional Regulation
Emotional regulation consists of internal and external processes involved in initiating, maintaining, and modulating the occurrence, intensity, and expression of emotions (Parthasarathy, 2016).
To regulate emotions, one needs to notice, monitor, recognize and adapt emotions optimally according to situations.
Note that optimal emotional adaptation doesn’t always mean decreasing negative feelings and increasing positive ones.
For example, when a child is hurting, parents can regulate their own emotions to experience sadness and then show empathy to the child for support.
What Is Emotional Intelligence
Emotional Intelligence is one’s ability to perceive other’s emotions, discern them, and use that information to facilitate their own thinking, problem-solving, acting and regulating emotions.
An emotionally intelligent person not only can self-regulate, but they can also respond, influence and manage other people’s emotions1.
The Importance Of Emotional Regulation
To be emotionally intelligent, emotional regulation is the first and foremost requirement.
Not only that, emotional regulation by itself is paramount to the quality of life because it affects almost every aspect of our living.
A child who cannot self-regulate and throws tantrums constantly puts a strain on the parent-child relationship.
Failure to control emotions can cause a child to develop an unfavorable personality such as anger, aggression, withdrawn or anxiety that can interfere with the child’s social competence in difficult situations2.
A child who lacks emotional regulation skills has a harder time making or keeping friends.
Studies in the past few decades have shown that peer relation is a very influential factor in a child’s development. Children who are rejected by their peers are at risk for negative outcomes such as school dropout, delinquency, psychopathology and substance abuse3.
Those who are withdrawn and rejected by peers are also more likely to become targets of bullying4.
Having good emotional regulation skills is a strong predictor of academic performance5. Good emotion management allows a student to focus on performing during review and exams instead of being impaired by anxiety.
Students who can self-regulate have better attention and problem-solving capabilities necessary for cognitive functioning.
Good emotional control strategies also lead to better performance in tasks involving delayed gratification, inhibition, and long term goals.
Resilience And Mental Health
Effective emotional regulatory skills allow a child to have higher distress tolerance. The child develops more resilience and adapst more positively when facing stress at home, in school or elsewhere.
Many clinical child disorders are closely related to emotional regulation, or rather, emotional dysregulation.
For example, emotional dysregulation causes many behavioral problems common in conduct disorders such as Oppositional Defiant Disorder. A dysregulated child also has a significant risk in developing anxiety disorders, eating disorders and clinical depression6.
A dysregulated child also has a significant risk in developing anxiety disorders, eating disorders and clinical depression6.
Success And Well-Being
For grownups, emotions play an important role in adaptation.
An adult who cannot master emotional regulation enjoys less job satisfaction or general well-being7.
Experts agree that emotion regulation is one of the most important skills in a child’s development. Take a look at this video from The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.
The Science Of Emotional Regulation
Nature Or Nurture?
Researchers have found that some babies are innately more capable of regulating emotions than others. Whether an infant has inhibited or uninhibited temperament can affect the child’s ability to self-regulate8.
However, this ability is not set in stone. Children can learn to manage emotions given an appropriate environment.
A study in a Romanian orphanage illustrates this point well.
In this controlled study, a group of orphans was randomly assigned to foster homes with high-quality care while another group stayed in the orphanage. The adopted children showed a significant improvement in emotional regulation over the group that stayed9.
While genetics are important in emotion regulation development, the environment a child grows up in is just as important, if not more.
Related: What Is Temperament
Life Experiences And Brain Architecture
When babies are born, their brains are not yet well developed.
Developing a baby’s brain is in some way akin to building a house.
First, there is the genetic makeup. Genetics determines a basic plan for a child’s brain development. It acts as a blueprint for the brain’s architecture.
Then there are life experiences (i.e. the environment).
Life experiences are the construction materials for this precious brain-house. They can have a profound influence on the developmental foundation10,11.
Some skills are better or easier learned during certain periods in life. These optimal times are called sensitive periods or critical periods.
After the sensitive period of learning a skill has passed, there is a gradual decline in the ability to become proficient.
It is still possible to acquire the new skill but it will take longer or will be less likely to reach optimal proficiency.
To continue the analogy, when building a house, once the foundation is laid and certain structures complete, it will be harder, although not impossible, to make changes to those structures.
For instance, a young child can learn a second language and attain proficiency much easier than adults can. Once kids reach puberty, they are more likely to have trouble with phonology or grammatical processing. So the sensitive periods for new language acquisition is believed to be before puberty12.
In the Romanian orphanage project, orphans who were adopted by foster families before the age of 2 developed emotional regulation skills comparable to those of the never institutionalized children. The sensitive period of emotional regulation is therefore before a child turns two9.
But it doesn’t mean that once kids pass the age of 2, they have completely missed the opportunity to learn.
It only means it will be more challenging or will take longer to develop.
The point is, although our brains are flexible (plastic), the plasticity decreases with age.
Therefore, when it comes to self-regulation development, it is better to do it right the first time when kids are young than to fix it later.
The Sympathetic And Parasympathetic Nervous System
In our brains, the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) regulates emotions by utilizing two sub-divisions:
- The sympathetic nervous system, and
- The parasympathetic nervous system
The Sympathetic division is an emergency or quick response mobilizing system. Its primary job is to activate the body’s fight-or-flight response. You can think of this as the gas pedal in a car. When activated, it allows our bodies to engage and move quickly by speeding up heart rate, shutting down our digestion and making more glucose available in the blood for energy.
The Parasympathetic division is a slowly activated calming or dampening system. It produces the rest-and-digest response for the body to relax and recover from daily living. This is like the brake in a car. When activated, it creates a calming effect on our bodies by slowing down heart rate, increasing digestion and conserving energy. Activation of the parasympathetic nervous system can also counter the arousal effect created by the sympathetic nervous system.
The autonomic nervous system is crucial in controlling our bodily functions and emotional well-being.
When the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems are acting in balance (homeostasis), our bodies (the “car”) run properly and we are in emotional control.
But when the system is out of balance, emotional regulation is needed to bring our emotions (and bodies) back into a healthy, balanced state.
Since the fight-or-flight response is critical for human survival, it is no coincidence that part of the sympathetic nervous system has already developed at birth.
Even though babies cannot literally fight-or-flight, activation of the sympathetic nervous system can arouse a baby to alert parents to danger through crying.
The parasympathetic nervous system, however, is not as well developed at birth.
Infants have some limited self-directed regulatory behaviors such as thumb sucking, visual avoidance, and withdrawal. However, these behaviors have limited effectiveness, especially if the arousal is too high or if the stimulus persists.
When babies have uncontrollable cries, it is up to us, the parents, to help them regulate their bodies and emotions.
How Young Children Learn Emotion Regulation Skills
Since early life experiences are so crucial in shaping the foundation of brains, it is important to understand how parents can provide optimal experiences for their children to learn to self-regulate and to react appropriately in highly stressful moments.
Many factors can influence a child’s ability to self-regulate their mind and emotions.
Besides families, schools, neighborhoods, peers, and culture can all play a role in the process.
Here, we focus on parents and families because these are the direct components and often the most important ones in a young child’s development that are under the parents’ control.
Young children learn to regulate emotions through three main family-related channels.
Modeling has long been recognized as an important mechanism through which children learn.
Whether it’s reaction, behavior or habit, children carefully observe parents’ every move, study it, internalize it and then mimic it.
Parents’ own ability to regulate emotions is one of the first emotion-related modeling children see.
Kids learn about the “correct” emotional response in different situations by watching how parents react to and struggle with intense feelings13.
If a parent is reactive and curses whenever something goes wrong, the child learns to be reactive and misbehave when things don’t go their way.
If a parent is calm and thinks critically to solve problems, the child learns to stay calm and look for solutions instead of blames.
The younger the child, the more susceptible they are to parental characteristics14.
Besides active observation, children also learn about emotion regulation through emotional contagion.
Emotional contagion occurs when children unconsciously sense their parents’ emotions. When parents frown, raise their voice or pose angry gestures, a similar response is induced in children.
For example, when parents are frustrated or angry and yell at the kids, the kids are more likely to respond with similar emotions.
Peer influence is more pronounced as the child grows older.
Older kids learn about emotions through social referencing. They look to not only their own parents but also other grownups and their peers for emotional information.
To help their children to learn effective emotion regulation, parents can
- acquire adaptive emotional regulation skills themselves,
- display positive emotion, and
- expose kids to an environment that is positive and people in it possess effective emotion regulation skills.
2. Parenting Style And Practices
In infants and young children, warm, responsive and accepting practices can lead to positive emotional regulation results.
When parents are responsive, children associate parents with distress relief.
Researchers find that a baby whose parent is responsive to crying stop crying at the sight or sound of the parent in anticipation of being picked up. If the parent does not follow through with the usual supportive act, the baby returns to the distressed state15.
Parents’ own belief in emotion management also has a big impact on children’s ability to self-regulate.
Parents who accept, empathize and validate their children’s negative emotions tend to affect their kids’ emotion regulation positively. These parents are aware of their children’s emotions. They coach the kids to verbalize their emotions and encourage problem-solving.
On the other hand, parents who are dismissive or disapprove of expressing emotions, especially negative ones, tend to result in the development of maladaptive regulation16. These parents are uncomfortable expressing emotions and coach the kids to suppress their expression.
Parents who have negative or punitive responses to their children’s emotional displays can lead to heightened arousal (more activated sympathetic nervous system) which makes the child harder to calm down17.
To some parents, it may appear as if the child had become more defiant when the child was just too aroused.
These children have poorer regulation skills to calm a more aroused system!
Punitive parenting practices are counterproductive in teaching emotion regulation.
Studies also found that overly discouraging or encouraging children to express negative emotions results in more anger management problems. Parents who are calm or neutral to children’s anger are more likely to have lower levels of anger expressed by their kids.
Teaching coping strategies (e.g. take a deep breath), redirecting attention (e.g. look, here is a red bunny!) and reframing the situation (e.g. we can turn this into a rocket) have also been shown in studies to be beneficial to children’s regulation.
3. Family Emotional Climate
The overall “climate” of the family is a good predictor of children’s ability to self-manage their emotions18.
It is the amount of positive versus negative emotions displayed towards one another in the family. It reflects the type of intrapersonal dynamics at play within the family.
Factors that affect emotional climate include the parents’ characteristics, parent-child relationships, sibling relationships, parenting style, the family’s belief in expressing emotions and the marital relation.
Positive emotional environment is consistently linked to adaptive emotion regulation in children whereas negativity and tension are linked to maladaptive strategies.
When the emotional climate is positive, responsive and consistent, children feel accepted and secure.
When the emotional climate is negative, coercive or unpredictable, children tend to be more reactive and insecure.
Parenting style, which represents parental attitudes toward children, also affects the emotional climate within the family.
Authoritative parents who are warm and nurturing are responsive to children’s emotional needs. Children from these households tend to have a wider range of emotional regulation techniques at their disposal.
Family expressivity is the amount of emotions, both positive and negative, expressed in the family.
Although acceptance of emotional expression is linked to better emotional regulation, not all parental expressivities are helpful in setting a favorable family climate.
Parents who express positive emotions create a positive climate. However, parents who express high levels of negative emotions, such as anger, hostility or criticisms, result in a negative environment that is linked to worse emotional regulation in children.
One of the most common reasons for a negative family climate is probably marital conflicts. Children from these families learn maladaptive ways to manage interpersonal conflicts and emotions. These children are also less likely to develop social competence.
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