How to Regulate your Emotions: A Critical Skill for Parents and Children

How to Regulate your Emotions: A Critical Skill for Parents and Children
By Lindsay Perlman

Emotion Regulation – what is it and why is it so important?

Most would agree that there is not a parent among us who doesn’t have days where they feel overwhelmed by the pressures of being a parent or primary carer. No matter who you are, where you come from or what you do, parenting is a great equaliser and at one time or another, we all have those moments where we struggle to control our emotions during times of stress or pressure. We may end up reacting in ways we do not like and later feel overwhelmed by regret.

Apart from learning to deal with our own emotions, it’s important that we teach our children the skills necessary to manage their feelings when things aren’t going the way they’d like.

The good news is that it is possible to learn to manage your emotions so that you no longer feel bulldozed by them and at the same time, help your little ones not to feel overwhelmed by their emotions too.

In basic terms, emotion regulation means being able to appropriately deal with and regulate emotional experiences to effectively cope with a particular situation. It’s definitely not about suppressing emotions or pushing them aside, but rather being able to stop our feelings from overwhelming or distressing us.

Believe it or not, we start learning to regulate our feelings and emotions during infancy, but because it is largely a learned skill, like many things, some of us pick it up faster than others and many people continue to develop these skills well into adulthood.

When it comes to our kids, it’s very important that we teach them not to suppress their feelings, but at the same time not to become overwhelmed by them either.

What are emotions and why do they exist?

Emotions are essential for our survival as human beings as they help alert us to the need for action. Our feelings and emotions drive us and help us navigate our world and function in everyday life.

We challenge ourselves because we are excited about new possibilities, we cry because we are hurt or upset and we make multiple choices out of love. Our emotions are pretty much behind everything we do and say; but, when we act on our emotions too quickly or we act on the wrong kinds of emotions, we often make poor decisions – ones we may end up regretting.

So how can we better manage our emotions and teach our children to do the same?

Research shows that by the time infants are 4 months old, they are already able to discriminate between basic emotions, a skill that is largely learned from their parents.

Parents who are comfortable with a range of emotional states are more likely to help their infants manage their emotions. Using soothing words, gentle facial expressions, tone of voice and calm touch can actually teach children to regulate their emotions and to get back to a place where they feel calm again.

Parents who are not comfortable with own their emotions or who have been raised to avoid certain emotional states might not be able to recognise and manage their own feelings and, in turn, may not be able to help their infants to process and deal with their own emotions.

For these people, emotions can feel like a tidal wave that overwhelms them without much warning. As a result, their children may not be able to understand their own emotional states or cope with them effectively.

If you often feel your emotions are in control of you and your responses and you react without giving time or rational thought to the matter, you may need to work on your emotion regulation to avoiding responding to situations in less than ideal ways.

Why is it so important to be able to regulate our emotions?

  • Good emotion regulation is critical to mental health, academic achievement and the development of social relationships. Specifically, good emotion regulation skills improve child’s ability to resolve conflicts with their peers and show lower levels of physiological stress.
  • Poor emotion regulation skills are often a core feature of emotional problems and maladjustment, which has been linked to issues like depression, substance abuse, poor performance and aggressive behaviour.
  • A child’s ability to regulate their emotions and to express feelings in a constructive rather than impulsive or hurtful way, is now recognised as a critical factor in children’s psychological health.
  • Better emotional management leads to stronger relationships.
  • Being able to sit with unpleasant feelings and give ourselves the time and space to decide how we deal with negative feelings cultivates self-confidence.

Emotional regulation also teaches us to consider various solutions to a particular situation or problem and not to react solely from an emotionally charged place.

How to help your children to regulate their emotions:

  • Be a role model. Think about how you handle your own emotions.
  • Have empathy for your child. Be emotionally available to notice and help them process their feelings, provide comfort when needed to get them back to a point where they feel okay.
  • Be an ‘emotions coach’ by tuning into to the child’s changing emotional states.

Tips to help parents to regulate their own strong emotions:

  • Identify key triggers for emotional outbursts for yourself and your child.
  • Increase self-awareness and control of strong emotions by using the STOP skill:

S – STOP, step back

T – tune into your thoughts, feelings and body sensations

O – observe and notice what is going on inside and outside of you

P – proceed mindfully

Remember that it’s okay to ask for help - psychological support can help improve our ability to regulate our emotions (strong emotions in particular) and in so doing gives us the skills to manage those emotions so they don’t lead to problematic and impulsive responses.

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