We've all been there. You’re standing in the grocery store at the exact moment your child decides to have an emotional outburst because they're out of his favorite candy or she wants a particular type of cereal—or for no particular reason at all. We've all had those moments where our kids’ emotions become too much for us to handle and the embarrassment and frustration and overwhelming swell of our own emotions lead us to have rough days as parents.
Of course, as children grow up, they become better able to navigate their behavior and therefore become less explosive in the grocery store—and in any other kind of environment.
Yet many kids grow up not knowing how to truly regulate their emotions or what that even means.
Many people treat emotions like they’re the little characters in Disney's film Inside Out, as if they are small offshoots of our individual personalities that come to control our thoughts and behaviors from time to time.
However, that's not really the case.
What is Emotional Self-Regulation?
There is a biological component to emotions and a psychological component to emotions. The important thing is that no matter how powerful an emotion is, learning how to regulate it and choose how to react is a skill that can be taught to anyone.
Emotional self-regulating means deciding how you're going to react to them and developing skills to manage them in healthy ways.
Here are a few important exercises you can do with your children to help them learn how to regulate their emotions.
How to Help Kids Learn to Regulate their Emotions
Talk About It
Developing an emotional vocabulary is a really important skill that many people go into adulthood lacking. It’s easy to say, “I am angry,” or, “I am sad.” However, developing an emotional vocabulary means going a little further and saying, “I am angry at the situation because I do not feel like my perspective was valued,” or, “I am sad because I did not get a chance to say goodbye.”
Parents can model a good emotional vocabulary just by talking with their kids. When your child is having a large emotional reaction, ask them why they are so upset or why they are so happy. Show empathy and ask questions. Your goal at the beginning of the outburst is to calm them down and understand where they're coming from. If your child is having a large emotional reaction and you immediately jump into “fix it” mode without understanding the underlying reasons for the distress, the lesson you will impart is how to suppress emotions rather than regulate them. You can teach your children how to articulate their emotions through asking better questions and then following up with, “Was there a better way we could have handled that situation?”
Set an Example
If you, the parent or caregiver, are experiencing a difficult emotion like frustration or exhaustion, you have a golden opportunity to teach your kids about regulating their emotions.
It is not only okay but actually healthy to tell your kids that you need a few minutes because you are feeling frustrated or overwhelmed. When you say something like, “I’m feeling very frustrated right now and I just need five minutes to calm down,” you are teaching some really important skills.
- You are modeling good emotional regulation by articulating what your emotion is and setting a boundary that you need in order to manage it.
- You are showing your children that you have the ability to manage your emotions and that they affect your ability to do so.
- You are teaching your kids empathy by allowing them to see that their behavior or something in the environment is causing an emotional reaction in you.
These skills give children and teenagers the opportunity to grow and develop more empathy. It also teaches them about healthy ways of regulating their emotions without you having to give orders or dole out discipline.
Set the Right Boundaries
A good rule of thumb is to teach kids healthy boundaries for dealing with their emotions. For example, a house rule might be that your child will never get in trouble for having an emotion, but they could get in trouble for their actions. In other words, it's okay to feel angry, but it's not okay to punch your sister. By focusing the discipline on the action and not the emotion, you are teaching your child that they can control how they choose to react to a particular emotion.
It is also important to remember that there is no such thing as a “bad emotion.” Emotions are neither particularly bad nor good. They’re simply our minds’ way of reacting to a situation. Learning to suppress them is not healthy and will lead to dysfunctional relationships down the road. There are times when being angry is a perfectly appropriate reaction, just as there are times when it is appropriate to be sad. By giving your kids permission to experience their emotions in a safe environment, you are giving them power over that emotion.
When it comes to setting boundaries about reacting to emotions, it is a good idea to talk to your kids about how they would like to regulate particular emotions. This skill is especially useful for emotions that are more explosive, like frustration or anger. Rather than dictating how your kids should react to a particular emotion, ask them what they think about how to appropriately respond.
For example, let's say your teenager has just lashed out at you for having to take out the garbage. It would be very easy to react to the specific behavior of lashing out. Setting a healthy boundary means explaining to your teen that his or her words and tone of voice are inappropriate, and the garbage needs to be taken out regardless. Later, however, when the moment has passed and everyone is calm, follow up with them and ask about why they lashed out over the trash. Did they feel that that was an appropriate response to that particular situation? Why did they get so frustrated? By doing this, you are asking for your teenager’s perspective rather than dictating yours. This should help open up lines of communication. When it comes to setting those healthy boundaries, you can use the insights you gain from your teen to practice some skills or invite them to come talk to you before they begin to feel emotionally overwhelmed.
Practicing these emotional regulation skills is an important part of maturing and transitioning into an adult. Emotional regulation will help you and your kids be successful in your careers and relationships.