Tips to help children regulate their emotions | Sunday Observer

Tips to help children regulate their emotions

Have you ever encountered a child throwing a ‘tantrum’ and unable to stop? What if I tell you that asking them to “stop” or “go to your room” is the wrong way to handle this? Generally, there is a reason for children ‘acting out.’ For the sake of conversation we may say “they need attention”. Of course, they need something! There is an unmet need that requires to be attended to.

They do not know how to ask for it, and therefore resort to crying incessantly or screaming. As a response, if parents ask them to stop, their needs will not be met. They may be left with their own scary emotions, giving them the message that they are all alone. Unfortunately, when humans repress emotion, they are no longer under conscious control. Hence, those emotions may pop out at times when your child lashes out or acts out.

It is important to understand that children cannot be stopped from the feeling of emotions. It is important to tell them “It is okay to be angry but behaving like this is not appropriate”.

When a child is dysregulated, it scares us mainly because they seem completely out of control and as parents or caregivers we need to control the child. Children do not get dysregulated because we ‘allow’ their emotions, rather they are dysregulated because they cannot express their emotion and unconsciously try to release their feelings. Think about the times they curled into a ball and cried or stamped their foot on the ground while crying. Denying emotions or making them feel that they are wrong for having those emotions would not help them control their behaviours.

Let us look at some ways to help them out.

1. Remember children learn from us

Healthy modelling is an important way to teach children healthy regulations. As parents or caregivers when they are extremely dysregulated, we may be thrown off- balance. Take a moment to regulate yourself. If your child is too small and you cannot leave him walk to another corner in the room, take a few breaths, and remind yourself who the role-model is before you engage with your child. If you talk respectfully to them, they will learn the same.

This does not mean you are giving in to what they are asking. You can in one or two sentences explain to them what is expected and empathise with them.

Say “I understand this is frustrating for you” or “I understand it is difficult for you”. It is understandably difficult as adults to behave this way when we are overwhelmed with sentiments. If so, can you imagine how difficult it is for your children? Remember practice makes perfection.

2. We accept our children’s feelings even if they are inconvenient.

Most of the time emotions can be an inconvenience, particularly when they are negative. Empathize with your child. Use phrases like “that must be terrible for you”. This will signal the child that although uncomfortable, emotions are not ‘bad’ or dangerous. This will teach children to sit with the discomfort and learn to manage them going forward.

When empathy is what is modelled by parents children will learn the same and this would make them process their emotions and know that they do not have to shout to be heard. They will know that someone understands what they feel.

Try to avoid minimizing or talking children out of their feelings. Try to avoid saying “don’t be sad”, but rather say “you are sad because your friend had to leave, let’s wave her good-bye and try to set up another play-date”.

Acknowledging their feelings allows them to learn how to cope with these feelings. If children’s feelings are minimized, they might internalize these negative feelings and become sad or anxious or may express through anger or aggression.

3. Help children name their emotions

Emotions like anger, sadness, frustration, and disappointment can be overwhelming for young children. Naming or labelling these feelings is the first step to help children learn to identify them, and it communicates to children that these feelings are normal, even if they are not pleasant. Listen openly and calmly when your child shares difficult feelings and acknowledge them. When you ask about and acknowledge feelings, an important message is sent that feelings are vital and inevitable and it’s common. Accepting the feeling is the first step toward learning to manage them in a healthy and appropriate way.

4. Try to guide children’s behaviour and resist the impulse to punish.

Spanking, punishments, shaming, time-outs do not help children when managing them.

This leads them to believe the emotions and feelings that lead them to misbehave are ‘bad and wrong’. Children may then suppress their emotions and it might spill out later as their emotional baggage is full because they were suppressing these feelings. Instead of punishing try to guide your children’s behaviour in a positive way while helping them to process emotions and talking about themselves.

Help them and learn the skill of managing them by scaffolding. This means helping the child through learning the skill so that eventually they can do it themselves.

It does not mean that as parents you cannot have rules. You state your rules and expectations and when they cannot follow them you acknowledge the frustration they feel, however, distract them, redirect them, or problem solve with them to obtain a better outcome later. Being consistent as parents will help your children to understand and navigate their situations without misbehaving.

5. Strive for a powerful nurturing connection

Children learn to soothe themselves by being pacified by parents. Remember when your children were babies how they yearned to be carried, cuddled, sung to. This same physical and emotional connection is needed when your children grow up.

When older children cannot regulate themselves, they may come to their parent or caregiver who is their safe haven, expecting to be soothed. When we notice the child being dysregulated, try to reconnect. Look in their eyes, validate them, hug them, listen to them. When children feel that parents are happy to accommodate them and are delighted, they will want to cooperate.

6. Be reflective and teach your child to be reflective as well.

Following an incident of a ‘tantrum’ with your child pick a time to reflect on what happened. At bedtime discuss with your child what happened. This feedback that children need to better themselves is non-judgmental and non-emotional.

Try to be rational in reflection. Ask what went wrong, and why, and how they can fix it next time. Problem solve with them “what else could you have done?” and the next time it feels that something is brewing you can remind your child “remember what we spoke about last time, let’s try to do one of the other things we discussed (walk out the room, take 5 deep breaths, play with a toy)”.

At every moment listen to your child and validate their feelings while you are guiding them.Remember your angry child is not a ‘bad child’. We can help them limit their disruptive behaviour while letting them feel the emotion and reassuring them it is all right to be angry, except that they are not allowed to harm anyone. You can hold their hands while you tell them this.

When children are angry, it is usually because they do not know how to control their emotions. If you can be calm, compassionate, nurturing and help them guide their behaviour through modelling these actions, they will mimic the same behaviour. They will learn how to respond to their sadness, fear and anger and learn to self regulate themselves.

Children rely on adults to learn self regulation. As a parent or caregiver this will not be easy if you are not used to it. None of us can provide a perfect home.

However, we can keep working on our own emotional responses and make every effort to create a supportive environment. Learn these strategies and practice them, so it will make life easier for everyone.

The writer is a Registered Psychotherapist