Skip to Content

Emotional Regulation in Children

Emotional regulation is not a skill we are born with. Toddlers’ emotions can swing like a pendulum. Helping our kids learn to self-regulate is among parents’ most important tasks. This article will examine how emotional self-regulation develops and how we can help our children acquire this crucial skill.

What is Emotional Regulation

Emotional regulation or self regulation is the ability to monitor and modulate which emotions one has, when you have them, and how you experience and express them.

Learning to self-regulate is a key milestone in child development – whose foundations are laid in the earliest years of life.

A child’s capacity to regulate their emotions affects their family and peer relationships, academic performance and long-term mental health.

4 kids point at the sky and laugh - Emotional Regulation

Relationships with Family and Peers

A child who cannot self regulate and throws tantrums constantly puts a strain on the parent-child relationship. This can impact the climate of the whole household, including other siblings, and lead to a negative spiral.

Ditto for friendships: Kids who don’t have the ability to control their feelings or behavior can have a harder time making or keeping friends. The inability to self-regulate emotions can lead to traits like anger, aggression, withdrawal or anxiety.

All this can snowball into further negative consequences: Children who are rejected by their peers are at increased risk of dropping out of school, delinquency, substance abuse and other behavior problems​1​. Those who are withdrawn and rejected by peers are also more likely to get bullied​2​.

Performance and Success

In contrast, good emotional regulation in children not only positively impacts relationships, but it is also a strong predictor of academic performance and success​3​. Effective emotion management allows a student to focus on performing during tests and exams, rather than being impaired by anxiety.

Students who can self-regulate also have better attention and problem-solving capabilities, and they perform better on tasks involving delayed gratification, inhibition, and long-term goals.

This effect carries on throughout life. An adult who cannot master emotional regulation enjoys less job satisfaction or general well-being​4​.

Resilience and Mental Health

Meanwhile, kids who have learned to regulate their emotions can also better handle and bounce back from trauma or adversity: They have a higher distress tolerance and more resilience.

Many clinical disorders in children are closely related to emotional regulation or, rather, the lack of it. For example, emotional dysregulation is linked to behavior problems like Oppositional Defiant Disorder, and it can put a child at a significant risk of developing anxiety disorders, eating disorder and clinical depression​5​ , numerous clinical disorders and the development of psychopathology​6​.

Given all this, it’s not surprising that experts consider emotion regulation skills or self regulation skills essential for children to develop. Take a look at this video from The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.

Emotional Self Regulation in Children Harvard Video

How Does Emotional Regulation in Children Develop

So how do kids develop this critically important skill? And how can we as parents help them?

To answer these questions, let’s begin by examining what emotional regulation means.

Note: To self-regulate, we need to notice, monitor and recognize feelings – and adapt them appropriately for each situation. Note that this doesn’t always mean decreasing negative feelings and increasing positive ones. Suppressing negative feelings and forcing ourselves not to express them are not good a self-regulation process.

Is It Easier for Some Children To Learn Emotional Regulation Than Others?

If it seems like some kids have a harder time learning emotional regulation skills, while it comes naturally to others, you’re not imagining things. Researchers have found that some babies’ temperament is innately more capable of self-regulating than others​7​.

But while genetics are important, the environment a child grows up in is just as important, if not more. The capacity to self-regulate is not set in stone: All children can learn to manage their feelings, given an appropriate environment.

A study in a Romanian orphanage illustrates the importance of environment. In the study, some orphans were randomly assigned to foster homes with high-quality care, while others stayed in the orphanage. The adopted children showed a significant improvement in emotional regulation over those that stayed​8​.

Cartoon of a child with brain being worked on by construction workers - Emotional intelligence

Why Childhood Life Experiences Matter In Learning Self-Regulation Skills

When babies are born, their brains are not yet well developed. We can think of their brains developing a bit like building a house.

The architectural blueprint may give a house its shape, but the outcome will vary greatly if the house is made of straw, wood or brick. Similarly, genetics determine a basic blueprint for a child’s brain development, but their life experiences, like the house’s construction materials, can profoundly influence the outcome​9,10​.

And just as it’s easier to impact the house during the building phase than to alter it later, so can human brains acquire some skills better or more easily 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 the person will be less likely to get really good at it.

For instance, studies show that the sensitive period to learn a second language and become truly bilingual is generally before puberty​11​.

In the Romanian orphanage experiment, orphans who were adopted by foster families before the age of two developed emotional regulation skills comparable to children who were never institutionalized. The sensitive period of emotional self-regulation is, therefore, before a child turns two. The importance of childhood life experiences cannot be overstated, as proven by science.

However, this doesn’t mean that once kids pass that age, they’ve missed the opportunity to learn self-regulation. It only means it will be more challenging and will take more time and patience. So it is better to do it right the first time when kids are young than to fix it later.

If your child is older, don’t despair. It’s never too late to start helping children learn to self-regulate. What you need is to start now – the sooner the better.

On the other hand, it also doesn’t mean the process of learning to self-regulate is over by age two – far from it. A child’s brain doesn’t finish developing until mid-twenties.

Parents’ Role in Helping Children Acquire Emotion Regulation Skills

Our brains regulate through two parts of our nervous systems.

First, there’s an emergency or quick-response system – the “gas pedal”. Its primary job is to activate the body’s fight-or-flight response. Think of this as the gas pedal in a car. When activated, this system allows our bodies to move fast by speeding up our heart rate, shutting down digestion and upping blood sugar for quick energy. When a baby or child gets really worked up, this system is in full gear and the emotions are at “high speed”.

Second, there is a calming or dampening system – the “brake.” This system is slower to activate, but when it does, it slows down our heart rate, increases digestion and conserves energy. This calming part of our nervous system can counter the “high speed” effect created by the fight-or-flight system, and it’s crucial in controlling our bodily functions and emotional well-being.

When these systems are acting in balance, our bodies run properly and we are in emotional control. But when the systems are out of balance, we need to draw on our self-regulation techniques to bring them back into a healthy state.

Since the fight-or-flight response is critical for human survival, it is no coincidence that the “gas pedal” develops before birth. Every parent knows that newborns are perfectly capable of getting worked up enough to alert parents to their needs, or perceived danger, through crying.

The “brakes” system, however, is not as well developed at birth. Infants have some limited self-regulation capability available, such as thumb sucking, visual avoidance, and withdrawal. But they can only self-soothe to a certain point, especially if they’re extremely worked up or if whatever is upsetting them doesn’t stop.

To make things worse, the “gas pedal” can trigger the release of a stress hormone to suppress the “brake”.

When babies cry uncontrollably, they are driving an emotion runaway car with no brake! It is up to us, the parents, to help them regulate their emotions. Their nervous systems are not yet up to the task alone.

More Tips on Emotional Regulation For Kids

How to Help a Child Regulate Their Emotions

While many factors, including teachers, schools, neighborhoods, peers, culture, and genetics, can influence a child’s ability to regulate, parents and family play a central role.

Let’s look at the four main factors that influence a child’s ability to control their emotions.

Baby rides on Dad's shoulder - Emotional self regulation

1. Parents Modeling Emotion Regulating Skills

Modeling has long been recognized as a crucial mechanism through which children learn. Kids observe their parents’ every move, internalizing and then mimicking their behaviors.

Their parents’ own ability to practice self-regulation is among the first emotion-related modeling children see. Kids learn the “correct” reaction in different situations. They watch how parents control and struggle with intense feelings and impulses​12​.

Research shows that children of parents who struggle with emotional regulation are more likely to end up having dysregulation​13​.

If a parent is reactive, curses or yells 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 stronger is this imitation effect​14​.

And besides active observation, children also learn through emotional contagion – when kids unconsciously sense their parents’ emotions and respond with similar feelings​15​.

For example, when parents frown, raise their voice or make angry gestures, kids become angry, too. When parents raise their voices, kids also increase their volume.

Parental modeling is the number one way to teach children self-regulation. Emotional regulation in children comes from emotional regulation in the parents.

Emotion regulation activities or tools geared towards children should only be used as a supplement or last resort for kids who don’t have a good role model of emotion regulation to learn from. They should not be used as a replacement for good parental modeling.

As the child grows older, peer influence begins to join parental influence: Older kids learn about self-regulation through observing and mimicking their peers. However, the parent-adolescent relationship quality still plays a significant role in the adolescent’s self-regulation​16​.

To help kids learn effective emotional control, parents can

  • work to adopt better emotion regulation strategies
  • model positive emotions and emotional regulation
  • expose kids to a positive environment and to people with good self regulatory skills

2. Parents Adopting a Responsive, Warm and Accepting Parenting Style

Responsive, warm and accepting parenting practices can help children develop good emotional self-regulation.

When parents are responsive, their children associate them with comfort and relief from stress. Research shows that babies whose parents respond to their crying will stop crying at the sight or sound of the parent – they’re anticipating being picked up. If the parent does not follow through with the expected comfort, the infant returns to the distressed state​17​. Kids of responsive parents tend to have a wider range of emotional regulation skills at their disposal.

Parents’ own belief in emotion management is also important. Parents who notice, accept, empathize with and validate their children’s negative feelings tend to affect them positively. They can then coach kids to verbalize how they feel and encourage them to problem-solve.

But if parents are dismissive or disapprove of expressing emotions, especially negative ones, children tend to develop destructive emotional regulation methods​18​. These parents are usually uncomfortable expressing emotions and tend to coach the kids to suppress their feelings.

Parents who respond negatively or punish children for their emotions can cause them to get even more worked up, further activating their “fight-or-flight” nervous system and making them harder to calm down​19​.

When this happens, it may seem like the child is being more defiant, while in fact, their system is over-stimulated. Telling a child in the midst of a tantrum to “calm down” or threatening consequences may stimulate their systems to the point that they literally have a meltdown. These children essentially have poorer self regulation skills to calm a more worked-up system.

Therefore, punitive parenting practices are counterproductive in teaching emotional regulation.

Some parents take the sweeping-under-the-rug approach when it comes to negative emotions. They feel that if you can’t see it, it doesn’t exist, or it will eventually go away. Unfortunately, emotions don’t work that way. Children whose parents dismiss emotions and do not talk about them in a supportive way are less able to manage their own emotions and in their attention in social situations​20​.

To effectively teach self-regulation, parents can adopt the following parenting approach:

  • be warm, accepting and responsive to their child’s emotional needs
  • talk about emotions
  • accept, support and show empathy to validate their negative feelings,
  • be patient
  • do not ignore, dismiss, discourage, punish or react negatively to emotions
Mom and brother tickle girl - Emotion regulation

3. Fostering a Positive Emotional Climate in the Family

The overall “climate” of the family is a good predictor of a child’s ability to self-regulate​21​. Factors that affect emotional climate include the parents’ relationship, their personalities, their parenting style, parent-child relationships, sibling relationships and the family’s beliefs about expressing feelings.

When the emotional climate is positive, responsive and consistent, kids feel accepted and secure.

When the emotional climate is negative, coercive or unpredictable, kids tend to be more reactive and insecure.

Parents who express positive emotions create a positive climate. Parents who express excessive or constant levels of negative emotions, such as anger, hostility or criticism, contribute to a negative situation and worse self-regulation in kids.

One of the most common reasons for a negative family climate is marital conflicts. Kids from these families learn non-constructive ways to manage interpersonal conflicts and emotions. These kids are also less likely to develop social competence​22​.

To create a positive family climate, parents can:

  • express genuine positive emotions
  • seek help to better handle marital conflicts or negative personalities within the family
  • work on improving parent-child relationships and relationships among siblings

4. Grownups Teaching Self-Regulating Skills and Techniques

So far, we have talked about three different ways parents can help their kids self-regulate. If it looks like parents need to do more than the kids to regulate their emotions, you’re right.

Young children rely on adults to learn self regulation. As they grow older, school age children’s executive function will play a bigger role​23​. Parents can then teach self-regulation using the following science-backed strategies.

  • Coping skills​24​ (e.g. count to 10, take a deep breath, breathing exercises, mindfulness)
  • Redirect attention​25​ (e.g. look, here is a red bunny!)
  • Reappraisal by reframing the situation​26​ (e.g. we can turn this into a rocket )
  • Biofeedback​27​

Sign up for our updates to get more tips on emotional regulation for kids

Final Thoughts on Emotional Regulation in Children

If the information on helping children develop self-regulation feels heavy, it is. It is a reminder that our jobs as parents are paramount in shaping the future of our children.

However, none of us can provide a perfect home, genetics or modeling. Expecting perfection from ourselves may actually increase tension and negativity.

What we need to do is to keep working on our own emotional muscles and strive to create a supportive environment. And it’s never too late to start.

So take a deep breath, accept yourself and your family for where you are in the process, and dive in. It’s well worth the effort.


References

  1. 1.
    Parker JG, Asher SR. Peer relations and later personal adjustment: Are low-accepted children at risk? Psychological Bulletin. Published online 1987:357-389. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.102.3.357
  2. 2.
    Perry DG, Kusel SJ, Perry LC. Victims of peer aggression. Developmental Psychology. Published online 1988:807-814. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.24.6.807
  3. 3.
    Graziano PA, Reavis RD, Keane SP, Calkins SD. The role of emotion regulation in children’s early academic success. Journal of School Psychology. Published online February 2007:3-19. doi:10.1016/j.jsp.2006.09.002
  4. 4.
    Côté S, Morgan LM. A longitudinal analysis of the association between emotion regulation, job satisfaction, and intentions to quit. J Organiz Behav. Published online November 19, 2002:947-962. doi:10.1002/job.174
  5. 5.
    Thompson RA. Emotional regulation and emotional development. Educ Psychol Rev. Published online December 1991:269-307. doi:10.1007/bf01319934
  6. 6.
    Buckholdt KE, Parra GR, Jobe-Shields L. Intergenerational Transmission of Emotion Dysregulation Through Parental Invalidation of Emotions: Implications for Adolescent Internalizing and Externalizing Behaviors. J Child Fam Stud. Published online June 25, 2013:324-332. doi:10.1007/s10826-013-9768-4
  7. 7.
    Schore AN. Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self. 1st ed. Routledge; 2015.
  8. 8.
    McLaughlin KA, Sheridan MA, Tibu F, Fox NA, Zeanah CH, Nelson CA III. Causal effects of the early caregiving environment on development of stress response systems in children. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. Published online April 20, 2015:5637-5642. doi:10.1073/pnas.1423363112
  9. 9.
    Saarni C, Campos JJ, Camras LA, Witherington D. Emotional Development: Action, Communication, and Understanding. Handbook of Child Psychology. Published online June 1, 2007. doi:10.1002/9780470147658.chpsy0305
  10. 10.
    Fox SE, Levitt P, Nelson III CA. How the Timing and Quality of Early Experiences Influence the Development of Brain Architecture. Child Development. Published online January 2010:28-40. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2009.01380.x
  11. 11.
    Johnson JS, Newport EL. Critical period effects in second language learning: The influence of maturational state on the acquisition of English as a second language. Cognitive Psychology. Published online January 1989:60-99. doi:10.1016/0010-0285(89)90003-0
  12. 12.
    boone tim, reilly anthony j., Sashkin M. SOCIAL LEARNING THEORY Albert Bandura Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1977. 247 pp., paperbound. Group & Organization Studies. Published online September 1977:384-385. doi:10.1177/105960117700200317
  13. 13.
    Carrère S, Bowie BH. Like Parent, Like Child: Parent and Child Emotion Dysregulation. Archives of Psychiatric Nursing. Published online June 2012:e23-e30. doi:10.1016/j.apnu.2011.12.008
  14. 14.
    Parke RD. Progress, Paradigms, and Unresolved Problems: A Commentary on Recent Advances in Our Understanding of Children’s Emotions. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly. 1994;40(1):157-169.
  15. 15.
    Hatfield E, Cacioppo JT, Rapson RL. Emotional Contagion. Curr Dir Psychol Sci. Published online June 1993:96-100. doi:10.1111/1467-8721.ep10770953
  16. 16.
    Farley JP, Kim-Spoon J. The development of adolescent self-regulation: Reviewing the role of parent, peer, friend, and romantic relationships. Journal of Adolescence. Published online June 2014:433-440. doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2014.03.009
  17. 17.
    Tronick EZ. Emotions and emotional communication in infants. American Psychologist. Published online 1989:112-119. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.44.2.112
  18. 18.
    Lunkenheimer ES, Shields AM, Cortina KS. Parental Emotion Coaching and Dismissing in Family Interaction. Social Development. Published online May 2007:232-248. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9507.2007.00382.x
  19. 19.
    Eisenberg N, Cumberland A, Spinrad T. Parental Socialization of Emotion. Psychol Inq. 1998;9(4):241-273. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16865170
  20. 20.
    Eisenberg N, Cumberland A, Spinrad T. Parental Socialization of Emotion. Psychol Inq. 1998;9(4):241-273. doi:10.1207/s15327965pli0904_1
  21. 21.
    Morris AS, Silk JS, Steinberg L, Myers SS, Robinson LR. The Role of the Family Context in the Development of Emotion Regulation. Social Development. Published online May 2007:361-388. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9507.2007.00389.x
  22. 22.
    Petrides KV, Sangareau Y, Furnham A, Frederickson N. Trait Emotional Intelligence and Children’s Peer Relations at School. Social Development. Published online August 2006:537-547. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9507.2006.00355.x
  23. 23.
    Rothbart MK, Sheese BE, Rueda MR, Posner MI. Developing Mechanisms of Self-Regulation in Early Life. Emotion Review. Published online April 2011:207-213. doi:10.1177/1754073910387943
  24. 24.
    Campos JJ, Frankel CB, Camras L. On the Nature of Emotion Regulation. Child Development. Published online March 2004:377-394. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2004.00681.x
  25. 25.
    Feldman G, Hayes A, Kumar S, Greeson J, Laurenceau J-P. Mindfulness and Emotion Regulation: The Development and Initial Validation of the Cognitive and Affective Mindfulness Scale-Revised (CAMS-R). J Psychopathol Behav Assess. Published online November 7, 2006:177-190. doi:10.1007/s10862-006-9035-8
  26. 26.
    Goldin PR, McRae K, Ramel W, Gross JJ. The Neural Bases of Emotion Regulation: Reappraisal and Suppression of Negative Emotion. Biological Psychiatry. Published online March 2008:577-586. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2007.05.031
  27. 27.
    Davidson RJ, Schwartz GE. Patterns of Cerebral Lateralization During Cardiac Biofeedback versus the Self-Regulation of Emotion: Sex Differences. Psychophysiology. Published online January 1976:62-68. doi:10.1111/j.1469-8986.1976.tb03339.x