Self-regulation or emotional regulation is the skill of managing emotions and behaviors in different situations. It includes self-calming in distressing situations, being flexible to adapt to changes and transitions, and frustration tolerance when situations are difficult. Children develop these skills gradually over time and learn to control their own behavior, even during difficult situations and emotions. When a child has difficulty self-regulating, they may have tantrums and behavioral outbursts that result in meltdown situations. They may have trouble transitioning from one activity to another, or with being told that they have to be done with an activity they are doing. This can be difficult for parents to know how to handle and can lead to difficulty with social interactions and in going to school. Kids need to learn to identify and understand their emotions and then find better, more effective ways to cope with them.
What Parents Can Do
Parent modeling is the most important factor in teaching self-regulation skills to children. By staying calm when the child is emotional, rather than getting upset and angry, the child learns by observing the calm parent how to self-regulate. This is difficult to do, but learning how to keep yourself calm during the child’s difficult emotions will have a big payoff in them learning the skills themselves. Taking deep breaths, counting, or walking away to collect yourself before responding are all helpful ways to stay calm, but find what works best for you. How parents react to their child’s difficult emotions ultimately has a large impact on how they learn to manage their emotions.
Parents can also view self-regulation as a skill that needs to be taught. When parents realize that children need to learn these skills and that parents are the key to teaching them, the focus is taken off the child’s “bad behavior” and placed on the skills that need to be learned for growth and development. Parents can start by naming the emotions that they and their children are having and talking openly about those emotions. When a child is having a tantrum is not a good teaching moment, but having a discussion when the child is calm will be a good time to talk about it. Often people don’t talk openly about feelings and emotions, and many people are uncomfortable with being so open about the subject, but if parents can push through their own discomfort and model healthy open discussion of emotions, that is a great first step to learning to regulate those emotions. Once the discussion about emotions is open, parents can coach their children on how to cope with those emotions appropriately. The scaffolding process is where a caregiver gives more support at the beginning of a new learning experience and then slowly removes the level of support given until the child can handle it without help. When parents see their child getting frustrated or upset, start by naming the emotion, and validating that it is a normal emotion to have, and then give options for the child to consider in how to cope. Role-playing situations that are difficult for the child can be helpful, but make sure to do this when the child is calm and happy, not in the middle of an emotional meltdown. If a school-aged child is getting frustrated with math homework, a parent may suggest using a timer and taking breaks every so often, or maybe that the child get a drink of water or a snack and then come back to the homework when feeling calmer. Giving positive feedback and praise for making positive choices and validating difficult emotions will go a long way in helping your child be able to grow and develop these important skills.
Finally, managing your own expectations as a parent is often important. Perfection is never the goal. We will never be perfect parents and our children will never behave perfectly in every situation. The goal should be that your child views you as a safe and supportive person to talk to about difficult emotions. Emotional development is a process that spans throughout childhood. All children are unique and will develop skills at their own pace and ability level. Children under the age of 3 cannot be expected to exhibit high effortful control, and a child with ADHD will have more difficulty with emotional regulation due to deficits in the prefrontal cortex. It is important to be aware of your child’s ability level and set expectations that are realistic. Being mindful of your modeling and having open discussions about emotions will lead to a closer relationship with your child and healthy emotional development.
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