Disclaimer: the information presented here is based on my experience as a mother of three wildly different children as well as my graduate education in marriage and family therapy.
There was a lot of trial and error with my own children over the years, but the following steps seem to consistently help, even with each child’s vastly different personalities, in teaching my kids emotion regulation.
Step 1: BE a safe person for them!
How do we, as parents, become emotionally safe for our kids?
This is tricky, since a lot of adults also struggle with emotional intelligence, but it is crucial for parents to learn how to regulate our own emotions because children learn from watching our actions and behaviors more than listening to our words.
Key aspects of learning to regulate our own emotions are identifying them, sitting with them, uncovering their trigger, and using healthy coping strategies to diffuse the heightened emotion.
We want to show our kids that it’s OKAY and NORMAL to experience a wide range of emotions on a daily basis.
What we do with those emotions and how we act while under emotional distress will let our children know whether or not certain emotions are “safe” to feel.
With our kids we want to do the following so we know we are a safe person for them:
ENCOURAGE EMOTIONAL EXPRESSION: if they are angry, let them express their anger in healthy ways. If they are sad, let them cry in front of you (BOY parents LET THEM CRY!) If they are excited, joyous or content, enter into that experience with them. They need to know that you will accept and love them under any emotional circumstance.
DON’T REACT: it’s super hard to not react when a child is screaming “I HATE YOU!” out of anger or behaving in other ways that trigger our own emotional wounds, but if we can remain calm and remove ourselves emotionally from the situation, our child will continue to feel safe to express emotion around us.
This is huge because judgment creates shame. If my child tells me he’s hurt or upset over a situation I think is silly, and I say something well-intended like “don’t be upset, it’s not that big of a deal” I’m invalidating their experience and breaking the trust they have in our “safe” relationship.
Likewise, if they act in a way that catches us off guard and we say something like “why would you do that? What is the matter with you?!” We’re either planting or watering that seed of shame that will continue to grow throughout their lives.
VALIDATE AND NORMALIZE THEIR EXPERIENCE OR BEHAVIOR:
We all know kids’ behavior can be shocking at times. My kids have recently been though a big trauma and their responses were surprising to me as a mother. But because of my mental health background I was able to recognize that regression and violence and a number of their other concerning behaviors were trauma responses.
Instead of getting angry at their behavior, I lovingly explained to them that their behavior, although not healthy or productive, makes sense given the circumstance. I continued by explaining that there is no reason to feel guilty for how they are coping but we need to work together to find healthier coping strategies.
Step 2: Teach them how to BREATHE.
Box breathing works well with kids.
Teach them to breathe in while counting to four. Hold the inhale for four seconds. Breathe out for four and then hold the exhale for four seconds.
This will slow down their breath, giving their body a chance to move from fight/flight response to baseline homeostasis. T
alking or reasoning with anyone is pointless if their emotions are hijacking their frontal lobe (this hijack creates the flight/flight response). I’ve found that the counting helps distract the mind as well and returns your body to baseline quicker.
Step 3: Create a safe space for them to go to in their mind.
Ask your child to close their eyes and imagine the room or place where they feel safest. What does the space look like? How does it feel? Who is occupying the space with you?
Get them to be as descriptive and thorough as possible so it’s an easy image for them to pull up when they are feeling emotionally unsafe.
Step 4: Help them IDENTIFY emotions.
Anger is a go-to for children because it’s a secondary emotion to emotions children usually aren’t aware of. Guilt, sadness, hurt, disgust, frustration, shame, amongst others, all tend to present as anger.
I’ve found it helpful to ask my children what else they feel besides anger. Ask them where in their body they feel that particular emotion. How big is it on a scale of 1-10? What color is it? Does it have a shape or size? This info will help you help them to identify underlying emotions.
Step 5: Teach COPING SKILLS.
Unfortunately, healthy coping skills aren’t hard-wired into our DNA, they need to be learned, discovered and practiced. I’m going to share some ideas but the BEST way to discover coping skills that work for your child is to learn who they are as a person, what interests them and tailor coping skills toward that.
Coping skills suggestions for kids can include:
- Have them use a pillow as a punching bag or take the pillow and beat it on the bed until the angry feeling subsides. I tell my middle, who is very physical, to do 25 punches and he usually feels better around 20.
- Make them run or jump. Physical activity is great for anger!
- Have them list positive affirmations about themselves. You can help them come up with a list but try to get them to at least contribute (this will depend on age of kids) Examples: I am good. I am strong. I am lovable. I am important. I matter. My needs deserve to be met.
- Try Cognitive Behavioral Techniques. Children’s brains aren’t fully developed which leads them to all kids of cognitive distortions such as black/white, all or nothing thinking, filtering (focusing on the negative and not seeing the whole chain of events for what it was), blaming, etc. Here are some cognitive behavioral techniques that work well.
- Have them make gratitude lists. This shifts their perspective from focusing on what they don’t have or didn’t get to focusing on all the positive they have in their lives.
- Calming activities such as journaling, coloring, painting, a mindful nature walk, a dance party, or guided meditation (progressive muscle relaxation is great for kids!)
- Let them cry in your arms. Comfort them. Sit in their pain WITH them. Holding space for them to feel sadness or grief is the most effective way to begin processing it as crying is a necessary release. After they have cried and are ready to move on, you can suggest a physical activity that brings them joy.
Do the following container activity to help with PTSD.
My kids and I have all been using the container activity recently to deal with our PTSD.
Have them create a container in their mind. My container is large, pink, and has lots of little sections at the bottom (think of a make-up caboodle).
Once I see my container in my mind, I choose tangible objects to represent the feelings or situations I want to let go of.
Example: guilt over forgetting to be the tooth fairy last night (OOPS!) is a pearl necklace (in my mind, don’t go hunt for actual objects), my anxiety/frustration with homeschooling is a bottle of perfume, etc.
Once you have chosen how to represent each feeling, imagine yourself placing the tangible objects into the container and closing it tightly with a lock. Once I’ve locked my container I imagine myself driving it to the beach and tossing it in the ocean, then I imagine myself driving back home (away from the container) as fast as possible. Sounds like a lot of work but it’s not and it’s super effective.
You are the expert on your own child.
This is by no means a complete list but I wanted to provide some examples and ideas that have worked for us to teach emotion regulation.
Just remember that YOU are the expert on your own child and part of your job as a parent is to discover effective coping skills for each child based on their personalities, capabilities and interests.
I realize this might all sound a bit daunting but the most beautiful and comforting thing about children is that they are incredibly resilient and have an immense capacity for growth and change so it’s never too late to start teaching them how to regulate their emotions.