Here at Cradle we recently launched a 1:1 clinical psychology consultation service. One of the main things parents ask us is how to best support their child’s emotional regulation. Or in other words, how to help a young child to manage big feelings.
One of the first things we always say is that when it comes to emotional regulation, we must remember that our children’s brains and nervous systems are immature and under-developed, and so “perfect” management of feelings and emotions cannot and should not be the goal.
Tantrums, or periods of intense emotional distress, are developmentally normal and appropriate for young children. What a parent might see as challenging behaviour is likely a result of them feeling emotionally dysregulated. As parents, if we put pressure on ourselves and our children to put an end to these periods altogether, we will be left disappointed and probably frustrated. Instead it is best to think about emotional regulation as a long term goal that we want to continually support our child with over time.
Here are 5 simple ways to support your child’s development of emotional regulation:
Play has been said to be a child’s most important job. Play allows children to make sense of their internal and external worlds, and by allowing ample opportunity for play we are giving our children a chance to do this sense-making, and also giving ourselves a chance to better understand how they are experiencing their feelings and environments. In addition, periods of dedicated child-parent play (even 10-15 minutes per day) promotes a sense of connection and safety, and it is in this state of connection and safety that children are far more likely to be able to engage with age appropriate emotional regulation skills (such as naming their feelings, taking a break, doing calming exercises). Play also helps to strengthen the child-parent bond, which is key for them to trust you when you are working to help them regulate during an outburst of emotion.
2. Model emotional experiences:
By purposefully modelling our own emotional experiences and responses, we can show our children that we all need to work to recognise and regulate our emotional responses, and that we don’t always get it perfectly right! You might do this by naming your emotions out loud, in whatever language feels most comfortable for you; acknowledging those times that you have found it difficult to regulate your emotions, and what you might try to do differently next time; and reminding your child that all emotions are normal – there are no “good” and “bad” feelings.
3. Teach simple grounding exercises:
Very simple calming and grounding exercises can be modelled for and taught to children even from a young age. For example, if you notice some early warning signs that your child is beginning to become dysregulated, help them to ground themselves by first naming what you are seeing (eg I am wondering from your words if you are becoming a bit frustrated) and offer them an opportunity to come back into their environment (eg let’s take a moment to notice what we can see in the room around us – let’s both name 3 things!). Remember that grounding exercises are unlikely to be effective if your child has already become very distressed, but they can be very useful at an early stage or as the child is recovering from a period of dysregualtion.
4. Encourage sensory and bodily awareness.
We are learning more and more now about the importance of our physical bodily experiences to our mood and emotional well-being. For this reason, supporting our children to get to know their body cues will be of great value to long term emotional regulation skills. Use body-focused language in day to day life (eg asking “does your tummy feel hungry right now?”) and be curious about exploring different environments that offer a variety of sensory experiences – think beaches, forests, swimming pools, even libraries.
5. As parents, we must recognise that supporting a child during periods of emotional dysregulation can be draining, and we are often simultaneously trying to manage our own emotional responses during challenging moments. This is hard work! Most of us are also faced with stresses and life demands that can make this even more difficult and as such, part of supporting our children involves showing kindness towards ourselves. This will look different in every family but the key components of self-compassion include acknowledging your distress and offering yourself some act of kindness even if very small. The more our children witness this self-kindness in us the better they will be able to apply this towards themselves in later years.
Providing advice and around your child’s emotional regulation is a key element of our consultation clinic. We like to talk through your child’s unique experience and consider individualised strategies that may help to support their emotional well-being.