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.
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 problems1. Those who are withdrawn and rejected by peers are also more likely to get bullied2.
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 success3. 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-being4.
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 depression5 , numerous clinical disorders and the development of psychopathology6.
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.
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 others7.
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 stayed8.
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 outcome9,10.
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 puberty11.
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.
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.
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 impulses12.
Research shows that children of parents who struggle with emotional regulation are more likely to end up having dysregulation13.
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 effect14.
And besides active observation, children also learn through emotional contagion – when kids unconsciously sense their parents’ emotions and respond with similar feelings15.
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-regulation16.
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 state17. 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 methods18. 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 down19.
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 situations20.
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
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-regulate21. 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 competence22.
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 role23. Parents can then teach self-regulation using the following science-backed strategies.
- Coping skills24 (e.g. count to 10, take a deep breath, breathing exercises, mindfulness)
- Redirect attention25 (e.g. look, here is a red bunny!)
- Reappraisal by reframing the situation26 (e.g. we can turn this into a rocket )
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.
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