On a crisp spring afternoon, I watched Jacob and his dad playing soccer in the backyard through the window. The score was 5-5 — next goal wins. Jacob was between the goal posts, crouched and ready for Dad to take his shot. Dad faked left, then right, wound up for the kick, and shot the ball just past Jacob’s fingertips. Pounding the ground with his fists, Jacob let out an angry howl. He heaved himself up, and with a red face, stormed past his dad straight for the house. “I quit! I’m never playing again!” I peeked out the window at his father, and he shrugged helplessly back at me.
What Jacob’s perplexed father just experienced was his son’s difficulty with emotion regulation. Emotion regulation can be described as a process of specific strategies that alter or change the experience of negative emotions. While it is true that individuals vary in their emotional responses — intensity, frequency, and behaviors — emotion regulation is a learned skill that develops over time, at different speeds, and at different mastery levels.
Children begin learning the process of regulating their emotions from the very moment of birth, when their cries of distress are responded to by caregivers who provide basic needs, such as food, touch, shelter, warmth, etc. Some infants are more easily soothed than others, suggesting there are some individual differences in the ability to acquire emotional self-regulation. Although some infants show stronger self-soothing behaviors than others, the infant’s internal feelings of distress are largely addressed by the caregiver’s efforts to change the external environment. Responding positively to his emotional needs will form a strong, trusting bond between the infant and his mother, and will pave the way for future emotional regulation modeling and guidance.
As children move from preschool to school-age, they are expected to take greater responsibility for their emotional regulation, and this is often where parents become concerned. Children are still seeking guidance and direction in dealing with their negative emotions, and the development of emotional self-regulation varies considerably, in much the same way children vary in walking or learning to tie their shoes. Research in child development shows that children learn how to regulate their emotions through interactions they have with their parents, as well as other complex combinations of maturation of the child’s neurological inhibitory system, temperament, socialization, and environmental support as predictors of emotional regulation.
Differences in the way families deal with emotions (self and others) and levels of predictability and stress in a child’s life all have an impact on the rate and extent to which they develop these all-important skills. Research has demonstrated some best practices parents can use toward helping their children establish healthy emotion regulation techniques to carry into adolescence and adulthood.
Physical soothing. Remember-ing that the first and most basic emotional responses involve neurophysiological reactions, caregivers can offer gentle touch in the form of a hug, gentle touch, or hand on the shoulder.
Distraction. Sometimes a caregiver can help a child become “unstuck” in a situation that is causing distress by providing a switch in task, a new game, or a similar diversion.
Accept expressions of emotion. While a child’s sulking, yelling, and crying can be exhausting, parents can assist children by tuning in, rather than tuning out. Encourage children to express their feelings through their own words rather than suggesting how they “should” or “shouldn’t” feel (“You should be happy for your sister!” or “Don’t be sad!”).
Model emotional regulation skills by talking about your own feelings. Parents should describe their feelings using words to explain their own emotional reactions and emotional regulation strategies (e.g., “I’m so frustrated. Maybe if I take a break for a little while I can figure out a different way to deal with this”). Parents who model this will teach their children to use words instead of behaviors to express their emotions.
Teach children to recognize when negative feelings are building up. Help them tune into their body and notice early warning signs of anger or aggravation. This may be a tone of voice, a feeling of tension, or a small behavior.
Teach them to “turtle.” Teach your child to imagine s/he has a shell like a turtle. Tell them to pull into their shell and take a few deep breaths, pushing the air into their arms and legs. As they slow their breathing, encourage them to think positive thoughts (e.g., “I can be calm”) and to stay in their shell until they can come out and try to deal with the situation again.
Teach problem-solving skills. When a child masters their physical responses and emerges from their “turtle shell,” caregivers can help them learn to cope with their emotions on a cognitive level by engaging in problem solving: What is the problem? What are possible solutions? Which ones can I implement? What would happen if I did it? Am I doing it? How did it turn out?
Above all, caregivers can help children regulate their emotions by praising positive efforts. The enthusiasm you brought to a child’s first steps can be just as powerful for their first success at self-regulation. Recognizing preferred methods of emotion regulation strategies would help children use the same methods in the future.
Krystal Caney is a graduate student clinician in the Mental Health Counseling program at Becker College. She provides counseling services to adults, children, couples, and families through the Counselor Training Clinic at Becker College in Leicester. Visit mhcclinic.becker.edu for more information about available, low-cost, counseling services with Krystal or other qualified professionals.