Do you wonder why your child seems to explode with an outburst at the slightest inconvenience?
Tantrums are pretty commonplace in the life of a toddler. One wrong move could set off a sour mood for the rest of the afternoon. If you’ve ever been at the mercy of a toddler’s meltdown, then you’ve probably also found yourself questioning your own emotional maturity. I have definitely experienced this first hand!
After having an especially hectic morning a few weeks ago, I rushed to make my 18-month-old son his lunch. I quickly realized that I had made the fatal error of using the wrong cup for his water, as disappointment sent him into a tailspin of frustrated shrieks.
As he wailed, I mentally reminded myself to take a breath. While exhaling, it hit me that while I realized what was needed to calm myself, my son did not have those tools. He did not yet understand that uncomfortable emotions are just temporary.
That moment was a deciding factor in my mind- I needed to find ways to teach my young child self-regulation. I also knew that the first years of life are vital to emotional development–it’s never too early to start.
Emotional outbursts can happen at any age. The one likely common denominator of emotional outbursts, regardless of age, is that we want to be able to handle them in a productive way for both ourselves and our children.
If we want to provide solutions for our children in having a healthy outlet for their emotions, we must evaluate how self-regulation plays a role in emotional well-being. After all, self-regulation is a skill that we know is especially necessary for the success of our children throughout their school-aged years and adulthood.
Self-regulation refers to the management of our own behaviors, body movements, and emotions. Self-regulation should not be confused with self control which concerns the inhibiting of strong impulses. Self-regulatory skills provide benefit to our overall well being and are necessary for a child’s school-readiness; therefore, we need to be enforcing these practices as early as possible.
A study on school-readiness and self-regulation states that:
When asked to rank the skills and abilities most relevant to children’s readiness for school, teachers responded by endorsing a conception of readiness as being physically well nourished and rested, able to communicate wants and needs verbally, to be enthusiastic and curious in approaching new activities, to pay attention and follow directions, to not be disruptive, and to be sensitive to other children’s feelings.
Self-regulation is a skill required for school-age children to be able to participate and gain all that they can from their learning environment. Self-regulation is important at any age and it’s important that we, as parents, take an active role in strengthening these abilities; not just for our children, but for ourselves as well.
The Benefits of Self-Regulation
The benefits of self-regulation (for both parents and children alike) go way beyond alleviating temper tantrums and include:
- A calmer temperament, through the brain-body balance
- Greater sense of independence, through mastery of emotional reactions
- Better connection between feelings and the responses to those feelings
Children without a foundation of garnered emotional intelligence are much more likely to turn to a fit of frustration, rather than use coping techniques to self-regulate emotions. This may translate into hysterics after being told that it’s time to come inside from playing or a tantrum when asked to share toys.
Understanding what self-regulation is and why it’s important for our children is fairly simple; but it’s trickier to define how we, as parents, can encourage it. On my journey of discovering what components make for a healthy, happy, self-regulated child, I have read a lot about validating children’s emotions and building trust through the process of fostering an emotional intelligence.
Emotional Intelligence, also referred to as EQ or EI (Emotional Intelligence Quotient), is the degree to which one can recognize and define one’s own feelings. It has been described as, “the ability to perceive emotions, to access and generate emotions so as to assist thought, to understand emotions and emotional knowledge, and to reflectively regulate emotions so as to promote emotional and intellectual growth.”
Though the ability to identify our feelings seems inherent, it is actually a much less common practice. Perhaps we all know some adults who are still navigating the path to ultimate emotional intelligence (perhaps we are even one of them)!
In making the connection between self-regulation and emotional intelligence, it became clear to me that I had to begin at my child’s ability to recognize and define feelings before learning how to regulate them.
Here are the best ways in which we can teach our kids (and ourselves along the way) to have emotional intelligence that leads to self-regulation:
#1: Lead by Example
If we are unable to regulate our own emotions and responses, how can we expect our protégés to demonstrate these behaviors? As with all aspects of parenting, we must lead by example, taking every moment as a teaching opportunity and showing our children a healthy way to cope.
In order for children to become familiar with a healthy emotional response, we need to use language in our day-to-day lives that heightens their awareness of what their emotions are and what words they can use to define those feelings.
Narrating our own thoughts and feelings can help to create an environment where feelings are welcome and appreciated. Making statements out loud such as, “Mommy feels happy when you help clean up your toys, thank you!” or “Mommy feels upset when you are mean to your brother” helps to set the tone for a healthy range of emotional expression.
This labeling of our emotions will help our children identify and be able to classify their range of emotions, thus developing a comprehensive view of their feelings.
We can also put this into place when speaking to our children about their own feelings. When we see our child getting frustrated, we can say, “It looks like you are feeling angry about having to clean up, is that right?” When our child accomplishes a new goal we might say, “You look very happy that you built the block tower. Are you proud that you stacked it up so tall?”.
Covering both positive and negative emotions helps immensely in teaching children how to verbalize their feelings and will eventually translate into the ability to work through them confidently.
#2: Be Aware of Emotions
Like most things in life, emotional intelligence starts with awareness. Being in tune with our children and appreciating their emotional needs will help inspire attentiveness to their own needs, thus expanding their emotional intelligence.
To do this, we must also have a firm grasp of our own emotional intelligence and like most things, this means constant practice. EQ is something that we must continuously reinforce, as it will eventually become our tendency to be more aware than not.
Regularly practicing emotional awareness will lead to more contemplation about our feelings and how we would prefer to react to them. Emotions, whether pleasant or unpleasant, are what make us the diverse creatures we are. Being aware of emotions brings us to a more sophisticated degree of self-understanding. Regulating our emotions must start at recognizing them and then taking the steps towards balancing those emotions in accordance with the lives we want to lead.
We can translate these ideas into a kid-friendly format by using fun activities such as:
- Having our children name their feeling
- Encouraging our children to draw a picture of that feeling
- Identifying emotions by behavior (i.e. crying means sad, throwing toys means anger, laughing means happiness)
- Using “go-to” strategies to help with emotions. This could mean taking a sensory break to listen to music, dance it out, swing, walk, or use fidget toys/stress balls.
These practices help put into context what names our feelings have, what physical expression we choose to display these emotions, and how to decompress when experiencing emotions that overwhelm us.
When we describe and acknowledge emotions, we normalize that emotion and provide validation that emotions are nothing to be ashamed of. We model for our children that emotions are allowed to be expressed, without fear of consequence.
Having the understanding that emotional responses are fleeting can create a sense of harmony between our minds and our bodies. Knowing that we can choose the way we respond brings a sense of competence to all regards of life. Implementing this way of thinking early on helps foster healthy self-regulating skills. We can take the time to validate our child’s emotions when they express them, as a way to normalize their wide range of feelings.
Parents can validate emotions by utilizing active listening. Active listening can include:
- Listening empathetically
- Getting down to our child’s eye level in order to even out physical size and make eye contact
- Respecting our child’s expression and body language
- Restating what we heard, allowing our children the opportunity to correct our interpretation
- Asking questions to show our curiosity
Using language in our daily lives that encourages emotional recognition is important in setting the scene for developing an understanding of emotions. Some specific phrases that can provide verbal validation are:
- “I can see that you’re upset. What can I do to help?”
- “It’s exciting when we see a puppy dog, isn’t it?” or “It’s sad when we have to leave our friends.” (Insert the emotion, and then the event)
- “I’m here for you!”
When validating, we also want to portray how the emotions relate to behavior. We might want to say to our child, “It’s ok to feel upset, but we don’t hit, because that makes others sad.”
This is a good way to show our child that we understand their frustration, but also lays a firm boundary for what is acceptable behavior. All emotions are acceptable to have, but not all reactions are beneficial. We can communicate that the emotions are perfectly okay, but that they do not need to result in destructive behaviors.
#4: Self-Regulating Skills
Self-regulation does not mean that we need to shut down any negative emotions and replace them with positive ones. Doing so would contradict the main goal of emotional intelligence, which is the recognition of these feelings. Whether an emotion is labeled “good” or “bad,” it is our response to the emotion and the level to which we allow it, that impacts our state of mind.
James J. Gross, a leading scholar in emotion regulation, developed the process model of emotion regulation. Within this model there are five stages in the generation of emotion. Different strategies can be used to regulate one’s emotion during each of these stages.
Gross defines the five phases of emotion (with the first two geared toward an adult level of cognisance and the last three geared towards children) as:
- Situation selection: The decision to either confront or avoid a situation directly related to the expected emotional impact
- Situation modification: Changing the environment to change the emotional impact
- Attention deployment: Redirecting attention to influence emotions
- Cognitive change: Assessing the situation with rationale to modify the emotional outcome
- Response modulation: Guiding the emotional response once the feelings surface
Stages one and two of this process model fall on the responsibility of the adult, as they require environmental controls that children do not often have the influence to change.
It is the last three states of this model in which we can use specific techniques to address the emotion production with our children.
Stage 3: Attention deployment = Redirect the child’s attention
Redirecting our child’s attention during “big” emotions can be as simple as enthusiastically pointing out a silly character in a book or suddenly becoming the tickle monster. Moving a child’s attention to something that piques their curiosity or entices laughter can trigger a dopamine release. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that plays a role in the pleasure centers of the brain and can combat the exacerbation of distraught feelings.
Stage 4: Cognitive changes = Reevaluating the situation
When we reevaluate the situation for our child, it means that we help to shed a different light on the emotion-provoking scenario. For example, if our child breaks their favorite toy, we can offer a solution of, “Your car doesn’t have wheels anymore, maybe it’s now a submarine that can dive underwater!”
Reframing the situation in a more positive tone gives our children access to alternative viewpoints and teaches that they can navigate bad feelings and unpleasant situations by viewing them from a different perspective.
Stage 5: Response modulation = Coping Skills
Self-regulation, or coping skills, are utilized at the end of emotion generation. Once the feelings have hit the surface and a child starts expressing their anger or frustration, it is time to deploy the coping skills.
#5: Coping Techniques
Coping techniques are strategies we use to help handle difficult emotions, decrease stress, and establish or maintain a sense of internal regulation. Putting these skills into practice can help kids make sense of their feelings and how they can help their bodies come back to a calm state. Eventually, the routine of these practices will encourage children to turn to coping before they let the overwhelming feelings take over to the point of a meltdown.
Some very effective methods of coping fall under breathing and breathwork. By making these breathing exercises kid-friendly, children will be more intrigued to assist in their own emotional regulation.
One such breathing exercise that is a go-to in my household happens to be inspired by a song in the PBS show Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood:
When you feel so mad, that you wanna ROAR
Take a deep breath- and count to FOUR
One, Two, Three, Four
Taking slow deep breaths helps to initiate the parasympathetic nervous system. Stress-inducing events activate the sympathetic nervous system, also known as the fight-or-flight response. The inducing of the parasympathetic nervous system helps bring our bodies back to a rest-and-digest mode, calming our body’s stress response.
This is a great technique because it grabs a child’s attention with the recognition of a familiar catchy song, while enlisting the child’s collaboration to accomplish the task–with the secondary positive impact of prompting their sense of independence.
Reading is a great way to escape, for children and adults alike. When your child is feeling frustrated or upset, opening up their favorite story just might be the distraction needed to let those rising feelings of frustration fade.
Storytelling also helps kids relate to a situation and learn how to handle events through a context they connect with. Reading is a great way to teach valuable lessons through the activation of the wonderful imaginations that children have.
Labeling our feelings is not only important for building the ability to recognize them, but is also an opportunity to reframe the situation that is causing the upset. When we assign words to our emotions it’s just another way of disarming them from controlling our emotional state.
As parents, we may need to remind ourselves that the emotion our child is feeling is okay–even if we don’t entirely understand it. We need to validate the emotion, while making sure we set the boundary for what is an appropriate reaction. We also want to remember to reinforce that it is ok to have upset feelings, but not okay to hurt others or ourselves.
For example, we can say “Are you feeling angry that we are done playing at the playground?” This can be followed up with “It’s ok to feel angry, mom feels angry too sometimes. We don’t hit when we are angry. Let’s take 5 deep breaths and we will start to feel better.”
In creating a supported atmosphere for emotions, we are communicating that we aren’t trying to suppress any emotions from occurring; rather we are adapting our responses to them so we can experience them in a useful way that teaches us why we are experiencing the emotions to begin with.
Building Emotional Intelligence as a Team
Awareness of our emotions, giving healthy emotional examples, validating our children’s emotions, and incorporating response modulations are all amazing ways in which we can all learn how to better cope with our emotions. These steps are both relevant to parents AND to our children.
The ability to apply self-regulating skills in our lives and encourage the same for our children is the foundation for raising an emotionally intelligent being. Working towards emotional intelligence is a journey and can absolutely be one that we take as a family!
Two-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
As you navigate you and your child’s path of emotional intelligence and self-regulation, assess your current position by taking a few minutes to consider the following questions:
- Are you taking opportunities to teach yourself and your child the importance of emotional intelligence?
- How have you neglected your own emotions in the past and what can you do to start setting an example for your child to feel confident in their emotions?
- What ways can you customize coping mechanisms to suit your child’s interests?
- How will gained emotional intelligence positively impact your child/family?
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
Here are some steps that will put into motion your ultimate achievement of greater emotional health and enacting positive methods for coping.
- Make a daily checklist with at least three opportunities to hold yourself accountable for implementing healthy self-regulatory techniques.
- Focus on the process of practicing greater awareness, without having too many expectations for what your results will look like. Every child and every family has a unique composition that will take a process of trial and error to navigate through.
- Look for ways to include your child in their own education. Make the commitment to always ask for their input, even if they are too young to respond accordingly. Write yourself reminders of this commitment so that you can glance at them in those moments in which you are inclined to “push” your own thoughts on your child rather than allowing their input.
- Experiment with different response techniques to discover ones that work for you, your child, and your family. It may even be best to combine some methods!
- Consider your interactions with your child throughout the day. At the end of the day, do a mental review or take a few minutes to journal the ways you interacted that you are proud of and also times you could have had a better response.
- Remember that your child is taking notes based on the guidelines you set for them. Make sure you are demonstrating the emotional intelligence that you want them to model themselves after!