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You Can Teach Your Children to Regulate Their Emotions

Picture of Krisa Winn Krisa Winn

By Krisa Winn
HSLDA Special Needs Consultant

Do you have a child who can go from zero to 100 on the emotional scale in less than no time? Are the simplest requests to get ready for math or find a notebook turning into major battles? Are your child’s emotional meltdowns unpredictable? Do you find you never know what might “set him off”?

Not only are these behaviors confusing and upsetting to all involved, they impact your child’s ability to stay on track with academic studies.

What’s a parent to do? Are there ways to defuse these situations? Yes, there are!

While many factors can contribute to these types of behaviors, children who display them share a common struggle—they have difficulty regulating their emotions.

Emotional self-regulation is the ability to control oneself in such a way that thoughts, emotions, and actions lead to positive, socially acceptable results. Because it has to do with inhibiting thoughts, controlling impulses, and following through with plans, emotional self-regulation is an aspect of executive function. When executive function is weak, a child may have difficulty getting started with an assignment, following directions, or controlling emotions. This may be especially true when situations arise that the child perceives as frustrating, threatening, or unfair.

How can you help your child develop emotional self-regulation?

1. Model it. When we teach a new skill in math or language arts, we model the correct way to approach the problem. We verbalize what we are thinking and the steps we are taking. In the same way, parents can model appropriate ways to handle situations that are emotional triggers for their children.

This can be done formally through role playing, preferably during a time when your child is calm. Or it can be done less formally by taking the time to talk about how and why you acted the way you did during a frustrating situation—i.e. being placed on hold for 20 minutes, encountering a rude clerk, or experiencing poor service at a restaurant.

2. Encourage “flexible thinking.” In his book Respectful Kids, psychologist Todd Cartmell describes the idea of training children to have flexible thinking—to consider that there is more than one way to look at a situation. For children younger than age 8, he suggests handing the child a rubber band and having him stretch and move it about. The rubber band is flexible. Next, hand your child a dry wooden stick and have him try the same movements as with the rubber band. The stick will break. Dr. Cartmell explains:

Explain that your child can choose to be flexible like a rubber band or get mad and break like an old stick. It all depends on whether he uses flexible thoughts or mad thoughts. Flexible thoughts will help him stay calm and respectful and lead to a lot more fun. Mad thoughts lead to angry feelings and disrespectful actions that will get him in trouble. (Respectful Kids, p. 55)

To really help your child grasp the idea of flexible thinking, you need to model it in front of him, and help him think of other ways to look at situations that are making him angry and upset.

3. Use calming activities: When I think of someone who was expert at defusing highly volatile, emotional situations, the late Dr. Karyn Purvis immediately comes to mind. She had a way of connecting with children, determining their true needs and the motivations behind what looked like disrespectful or illogical behavior.

To parents, Dr. Purvis emphasized that self-regulation comes out of external regulation and co-regulation. In other words, before self-regulation is internalized or “comes naturally,” there are outward activities that parents can teach and do alongside their children to help them develop self-regulation.

Dr. Purvis shared the following calming activities during one of her seminars:

  • Pressing a finger to the upper lip—the “Magic Mustache” (parasympathetic pressure point)
  • Blowing
  • Deep breathing
  • Licking or sucking on candy, such as a Tootsie Roll or lollipop

Dr. Purvis also recommends having a plan for your child when “things are falling apart.” This could include having your child do light weights, snuggle under a weighted blanket, or smell essential oils.

4. Have a time-out area. This is not an area designed for punishment or discipline.instead, it’s an area where a child can go to calm down or get into the right mindset to co-operate. You could keep some tools for “calming activities” in that area.

5. Maintain good nutrition. I’m not a nutritionist, but I know from experience that some foods can trigger unwanted behaviors. Also, poor nutrition can affect a child’s behavior. Dr. Purvis offers nutritional tips for children who are constantly on “high alert,” ready to fight, freeze, or flee situations perceived to be a threat in some way:

  • Stay hydrated (drink lots of water)
  • Eat every two hours, with a protein snack at bedtime
  • Avoid sugary foods

Another tip not related to nutrition is to have your child engage in a sensory activity every few hours.

Understand what’s really going on

Lynne Jackson, occupational therapist and co-author of Discipline that Connects to Your Child’s Heart, integrates her expertise in child development and sensory processing into helpful advice for parents. In a recent article, she encouraged parents to “spend a little more time understanding ‘What’s going on with my child?’ instead of ‘What should I do?’ By learning more about their child’s nervous system, parents can get strong clues.”

My husband and I have a daughter whose behavior can be intense at times. A few years ago, we began to worry about her, as she seemed to be in a constant state of “fight or flight.” We tried everything we could think of to gain her cooperation, but our threats, bribes, and punishments just led to more drama!

Finally, we stopped trying to fix her outrageous emotional outbursts and behavior. Instead, we sought to understand and address the sensory and physical needs that were at the root of her “fighting and flighting.” Once we made that shift, her emotions and behavior began to even out.

Make “mirror neurons” work for you

Have you ever started yawning when someone else in the room yawns? That phenomenon is caused by “mirror neurons.” Believe it or not, mirror neurons can help you encourage your child’s emotional control!

If your child’s mood begins to “darken,” try looking deep into his eyes and smiling calmly at him. Say words that are encouraging. Turn away quickly and do it again. You may have to do this several times.

Although it sounds ridiculous, often this type of interaction will cause the child to smile. They can’t help themselves. Once the smile comes, the cycle of negativity seems to break. And sometimes that is enough to calm a situation that is about to get explosive.

Above all, don’t give up on your children when behaviors and emotions are beyond intense! Come alongside them, offering the support and tools they need to regulate their emotions. With your help, they will be well on their way to emotional self-regulation.

Recommended resources:

Respectful Kids by Dr. Todd Cartmell offers pratical ideas for nurturing respectful behavior in your children. It’s a must-have book for families who have adopted a child, or who are raising a child with emotional and behavioral issues.  Full of practical advice, as well as theory.

The Connected Child: Bringing Hope and Healing to Your Adoptive Family by Dr. Karyn Purvis, Wendy L. Sunshine, and Dr. David Cross

Empowered to Connect Companion website to The Connected Child.  Archived videos, informative articles, and other parenting resources can be found here.

Connected Families Jim and Lynne Jackson’s website.  Articles, books, and other resources that support their parenting approach are available on this site.

The Out of Sync Child by Carol Kranowitz is a classic book on the topic of Sensory Integration Disorder.

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