Emotional regulation is not something that people are born knowing how to do; it is a skill that takes practice. Children learn from the adults around them how to express and manage their various emotions.While a child having a meltdown may elicit sympathy and understanding from those around him, society generally expects that by the time you have reached adulthood, you will be able to grow in emotional regulation and work through your emotions less dramatically.
Helping your child with emotional regulation.
As a parent, you can develop personal skills of active listening to help you train your child in the management of their own emotions. Learning to observe their emotions requires you to be in control of your own emotions.
Whenever your child is having a big emotional reaction, you may first need to step back and take a breath. Give yourself and your child space to understand how you got here before jumping in with solutions or rushing to ease whatever emotion they are feeling.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things, there is no law. – Galatians 5:22-23, NIV
Outward calm is not the goal of self-control. Learning to understand the causes and needs of emotions will serve you and your child best in the long run as your child develops emotional regulation over time. Understand that your child’s emotions will look different at different ages and stages.
The tiny ones: 0-2 years old.
Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it. – Proverbs 22:6, NIV
Children in this age range have limited communication skills. They will indicate their discomfort and dislike of something simply by crying, screaming, or perhaps by turning or running away. Over time you will learn to distinguish a cry that means “hungry” from one that means “tired.”
Pay attention to your response to your child’s cry. If you start to feel panicky or angry, it will be harder for you to calm your child. Sometimes you may need to set your child in a safe place, like the crib, and calm yourself down in order to be a calming presence for your child.
This is a season of parenting that requires the slow endurance of monotony. Practice slow breathing and quiet prayer as you help your child.
Your goal: be a calming presence when your child has big emotions.
“I’m a big kid now”: 3-5 years old.
Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” – Matthew 19:14, NIVChildren in this age range usually have more words. However, they are still expanding their vocabulary and understanding of the world. There is no nuance to their emotions. When this child is hungry, it is all he or she can think about. Whether he or she is sad or happy, it is a full-body experience. The emotions may not be complex, but they are complete.
Learn to let your child experience big emotions in a safe space. If they are loud when they are happy, maybe teach them a cheer. Perhaps sadness is a chance to break out the tissues or rub his or her back.
Anger is one of the trickier emotions. An angry child may want to break things or hurt people. Allowing your child to express his or her anger without causing harm is hard, but an important skill to teach. Consider giving your child a pillow to scream into or squeeze as hard as he or she can.
Teach your child first to release the anger, then to be curious as to what else they are feeling, as anger is what we call a secondary emotion – one that has an underlying, root emotion, such as fear, sadness, or injustice of some sort.
After they have calmed themselves and you have helped them consider what else they are feeling and have helped them put language to that feeling, you can then help them consider possible solutions to the situation.
This is a season of major development milestones. So much change and growth require patience and compassion.
Your goal: Be open to hearing long-winded explanations about why your child is having a big emotion.
Growing fast: 6-10 years old.
Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. – Deuteronomy 11:18-19, NIV Leading by example is crucial in this stage of life. Your child is watching how you respond when someone cuts you off in traffic or when you have to make hard life decisions. Allow him or her to see you work through anger and sadness. Let them be present for your joy.
Give your child the space to feel his or her feelings and use questions to help them process. Again, jumping in with solutions is not the goal. Help your child come to a solution on his or her own. You can give your child a safe space to practice setting boundaries, setting goals and experiencing failure, and coping with disappointment.
As an adult, you are aware that such things will happen repeatedly in a lifetime. Your child is only just beginning to have those experiences. Be gracious to your child as he or she learns how to work through these different cycles and experiences.
Just like you sometimes need to step away from a screaming baby, you can teach your child to step back from big emotions. Help your child take a break when a game frustrates him or her. Remind your child that being tired or hungry might be causing him or her to have a more intense reaction.
Walk away, drink some water, and have a snack. Then come back to the problem and see if you can find a solution. You can lead by example, do this alongside him or her, or encourage him or her to try these ideas.
As your child develops self-awareness, he or she can begin to develop self-control by finding self-soothing practices that work best for them.
Your goal: to give your child a safe environment for expressing and experiencing his or her big emotions.
Preparing for puberty.
[Parents], do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord. – Ephesians 6:4, NIV
With the onset of puberty, emotions take on more complexity. Hormones flood the body, making self-control feel more difficult. Your child will become more aware of his or her emotional regulation. Some days your child may feel overwhelmed yet will have difficulty understanding (let alone articulating) why.
In addition to hormonal changes, there are often increased responsibilities being placed on your child. Your child has a heavier school load, possibly a job and extracurriculars, plus home responsibilities. Some may wish to cling to the freer days of childhood, while others take on too much too quickly.
Learning how to cope with all of these expectations will take time, and may result in short tempers or bouts of tears. Providing a sympathetic ear will go a long way to making your child feel supported.
Your goal: to recognize when your child going through big emotions, and provide support for him or her.
How counseling can help.
Being a parent is hard. We are here to provide support and encouragement as you do the work of parenting. Talk therapy may be helpful for your emotional regulation. During ongoing situations having your child talk to a counselor can open doors that your child may be reluctant to share with you. Family counseling can help everyone get on the same page.
A counselor’s role is to listen to everyone and help the family build closer relationships even when emotions are running high. He or she is not there to take sides or pass judgment. Being open to constructive criticism will help you become more compassionate toward yourself and toward your child as you seek to guide your child in emotional regulation and the task of learning to feel and face their own emotions.
“Emotions”, Courtesy of Alexas_Fotos, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Woman and Child”, Courtesy of Frank Flores, Unsplash.com, Unsplash+ License; “Smiling Girl”, Courtesy of Nappy, Unsplash.com, Unsplash+ License; “Smiling Woman”, Courtesy of Alex McCarthy, Unsplash.com, CC0 License
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