It’s thought that when we are born, we have 8 built-in emotions - anger, sadness, fear, joy, interest, surprise, disgust and shame (some of these you may recognise from the characters in Disney’s film Inside Out).
From these built-in emotions, we have secondary emotions that are learnt from past experiences. For example, if a child was punished because of a meltdown, they may feel anxious the next time they have a meltdown. Or if a child was laughed at for showing fear, they may feel embarrassed the next time they are fearful.
Here at Lucky Beans Childcare, we have created this article to offer practical tips and techniques for supporting children's emotional regulation. Using emotional regulation strategies, we will look at how we can help children develop the skills to manage their feelings and cope with stress.
What is emotional regulation and why is it important?
Emotional regulation is the ability to identify the emotion that is being felt, recognise why this emotion has appeared and consider how to deal with the emotion.
Dealing with an emotion includes how to behave, and to understand the consequences of this behaviour.
For instance, a child may get angry and upset about not having the toy that they want, this may lead to them throwing other toys - a behaviour that is unwanted and may be dangerous for others.
A child that struggles to regulate emotions can lead to socially unacceptable behaviour (as in the above example), display emotional outbursts, and may even result in weaker relationships with others.
On the other hand, a child that can self-regulate their emotions will choose the best way to respond to situations with the least amount of negative consequences.
The capacity to regulate emotions affects not only the family and social situations, but also academic performance, long-term mental health, and the ability to thrive in a complex world.
Children's mental health support needs to be prioritised and supported by parents and educators. Their emotional intelligence will be influenced by how we react and respond to their emotional behaviour. This will affect how they recognise and control their emotions not only now, but also in the future.
Supporting children’s emotional regulation can be taught in 3 easy steps;
identify - model - support.
Identify and label emotions;
Model how to deal with emotions;
And support children with how to manage their emotions and behaviours.
Help children identify and label their emotions
One of the first steps in teaching emotional regulation is helping children identify and label their emotions.
Explaining to a child how we are feeling helps them identify and give names to each emotion - “I’m feeling tired right now” or “I’m excited to hear about what you did at school today”.
Encourage them to use words like ‘happy’, ‘sad’, ‘angry’, and ‘scared’ etc to describe how they feel. This will help them develop a more understanding of their emotions and how to describe how they are feeling.
Simple activities such as asking them to draw or describe how they feel in different situations will help to identify emotions. Sometimes emotions can be described or expressed through a certain colour. There are a number of great books that help a child understand and label emotions - ‘The Crayons’ Book of Feelings’ by Drew Daywalt & Oliver Jeffers, or ‘The Colour Monster’ by Anna Llenas are two examples.
Another way to help children label emotions is to play games such as ‘show me a happy face, show me a sad face’ etc. This will reinforce the connection between the name of the emotion and the actual feeling.
By giving them the language and terminology to express their emotions, children can better understand and communicate their feelings. It also means acknowledging and validating children’s emotions, rather than dismissing or minimising them.
Model healthy emotional regulation behaviours
Children are quick to observe and copy adults’ behaviour - if an adult yells and slams things down when annoyed, so too will the child. An adult that remains calm and is focused on problem-solving, will transmit this positive emotional behaviour to the child.
Children learn by example, so it’s important for parents and educators to model healthy emotional regulation behaviours. This means expressing emotions in a healthy way, such as taking deep breaths or going for a walk when feeling overwhelmed, rather than lashing out or suppressing emotions.
By modelling and talking about healthy emotional regulation behaviours, children can learn to do the same and develop lifelong skills for managing their emotions and behaviours.
Teach children how to manage their emotions and support them through it
We’ve helped the children identify and label emotions, we are modelling how to deal with emotions ourselves. The next step is to teach them coping skills and more importantly, support them through it.
One of the most important strategies for supporting children’s emotional regulation is to create a safe and reassuring environment for emotional expression.
This means creating a space where children feel comfortable sharing their emotions without fear of judgment or punishment. There may be occasions where the child is having difficulties in regulating emotion. They may be lashing out, having a tantrum, throwing things, screaming etc (there are many different ways children express difficult emotions).
The important point here is to keep them safe and support them through it. Stay close to the child (ensuring they and others around them are safe), make sure they know you are there to help, comfort them and reassure them that things are ok.
Don’t try to reason with them. Give them physical touch if they need it. Or maybe they need space.
Once the situation has calmed down, comfort the child. A tantrum is difficult for everyone.
It’s good to talk to the child about what has happened, and why it happened. This will validate their emotions - an important step in supporting children’s emotional regulation.
We can say things such as “I can see you were upset/angry. Was this because…? What could we do to make it better?”
Encourage children to think about solutions to their problems and help them come up with a plan of action.
Let’s use the example of a child getting angry when their tower fell over.
“I can see you were upset. Was this because your tower fell over? What could we do to make it better? … shall we build it back up?”
For older children, we can help them to be present, in the moment and focus on their thoughts and feelings. This will help them in regulating their emotions and reduce stress and anxiety.
Activities such as deep breathing exercises, mindfulness practices, distraction with fidget toys or colouring, and positive self-talk all contribute to supporting children’s emotional regulation.
Mindfulness and relaxation practices can be incredibly helpful for children with difficulties in regulating emotions. It’s possible to incorporate mindfulness into everyday activities, for example, having them focus on the sensations of the environment around them - such as listening to bird songs whilst on a walk or noticing the change of temperature from inside and outside.
Validate their emotions by acknowledging and empathising with their feelings. By creating a safe and supportive environment, children can learn to express their emotions in a healthy and constructive way.
By teaching children these skills, they will be better equipped to handle difficult situations and regulate their emotions in a healthy way.
If you feel you need further advice or support, your family Doctor will be able to advise and support you. Or there are organisations such as Action for Children and websites such as raisingchildren.net where you will find more tips and advice on children’s mental health support.