The ability to emotionally regulate has many benefits that extend far beyond emotional release from otherwise overwhelming feelings. For children, the ability to effectively manage emotions can set them up for academic success, help them to establish and maintain positive relationships with parents, teachers, and peers, and increase their self-confidence. It can also enhance long-term well-being.
Emotional regulation is a necessary life skill, but it is not one that children usually develop on their own. To reach appropriate levels of emotional maturity, the adults in a child’s life must recognize his or her natural reactions — such as happiness, sadness, anger, and fear — and know what steps to take to help him, or her appropriately handle them. As a parent, you may wonder what that looks like for you. Below is an age-by-age guide to help you help your child develop strong emotional regulation skills.
What is Self-Regulation?
Emotional regulation is exercising control over one’s emotional state through reappraisal, redirection, and (least favorably) suppression. Though emotional regulation may sound like an advanced and complex psychological technique, the truth is that it is something most well-adjusted adults do daily. For instance, think about when you feel overwhelmed and on the verge of an outburst. Instead of letting your anger get the best of you, you stop what you’re doing and go for a walk. When you return to your task, you can do so with a level head and fresh perspective.
Helping Infants Self-Regulate
Though it may seem impossible to teach an infant how to self-regulate — as they are mostly guided by their wants and needs — the truth is that you can help your child develop and strengthen his or her emotional regulation skills within the first six months. Evidence proves it is, in fact, possible, as most babies adopt self-soothing habits to engage in during times of distress.
So, what can you do to help your infant calm down? Play songs such as “Wheels on the Bus” and “Old McDonald Had a Farm.” Studies show that these tunes have more of a calming effect on infants than lullabies.
Helping Toddlers Self-Regulate
Toddlerhood is the age when your child will begin to experience more complex emotions, such as fear. This is also the stage in which he or she should begin to develop coping mechanisms for these emotions. You can help by redirecting your child’s attention when you sense rising negative emotions, distracting them, or modifying the situation on his or her behalf. As your child ages, he or she will learn how to go through these techniques on his or her own.
Helping School-Aged Children Self Regulate
It is in this stage that children should begin to recognize when their feelings — and their reactions to them — are appropriate or inappropriate. However, many still find it hard to express their emotions in appropriate manners, and it is up to you to guide them. Teach your child to identify his or her emotions and what triggers them, and discuss ways to manage them effectively. Always, though, let your child know that you validate his or her feelings.
Serving As Your Child's Role Model for Self-Regulation
Ultimately, one of the best ways to teach your child how to regulate their emotions appropriately is by practicing effective emotional regulation yourself. Evidence suggests that not only do children pick up on their parent's emotions but also that they imitate their reactions. For instance, if you slam doors when you’re angry, your child is likely to do the same. If, however, you self-soothe through breathing techniques, your son or daughter will likely self-soothe in the same way.
Emotional regulation is a crucial skill that can go a long way toward setting your child up for success.