7 Steps to Better Emotional Regulation In Secondary-Age Children

7 Steps to Better Emotional Regulation In Secondary Age Children

Takeaway: Children have to regulate their emotions, as parents you can help by teaching them to recognise, name, respect, and react healthily to their emotions.

Children aren’t born with the ability to regulate their emotions, but it’s something they all need to learn along the way.

Psychologists see emotional regulation as the ability to (1) Be aware of our emotions, (2) To accept or change how we experience them, and (3) To express emotions healthily. You’ll see children pick up these skills as they grow up, starting with the ‘terrible twos’ when toddlers are flooded with emotions they don’t quite know how to handle. In our earlier introduction to emotional regulation,  we looked at how it’s really about goal-oriented behaviour. A child needs to balance what she’s feeling, with what’s appropriate for the environment she’s in. So, feelings of  boredom and frustration in class is fine,but being disruptive is not okay. And children who don’t learn to work well with their emotions will have a much harder life. They’ll struggle to get along with friends and loved ones, they’ll fall behind at school (and later at work), and become vulnerable to mental health issues like anxiety and depression.

Ideally, you’ll want to help your child with her emotions as early as possible. But the good news is that it’s never too late to start.

Babies’ brains aren’t yet fully developed, which means they change dramatically based on their environment. So, gentle nudges in the right direction are much easier with a 1-year-old than with a 5-year-old. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t possible. The good news is that emotional regulation is a skill, and we can learn skills at any age — it might just take longer. The trick is to break a skill down into teachable components and start addressing each of these components.

So what can we do to help a secondary-age child with emotional self-regulation?

Primary-age children might absorb input faster, but a secondary-age child is more self-aware and can reflect better. Here are some tools and tactics you can experiment with.

1. Encourage your child to accept emotions as a normal part of life.

The key to working with emotions is to recognise and accept them as we experience them. So, your child needs to learn to accept that emotions are a part of life and that it’s okay to feel them. As parents, we can reinforce this by not swooping in to ease negative emotions in our children. So, if your child is crying, it’s normal to want to take away her pain, but it’s healthier to help her deal with the pain herself. And you’ll do this by first reminding her that it’s okay to feel strong emotions. Crying, for example, isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of being hurt, and we can learn to work with that hurt.

2. Teach your child to name her emotions and talk about them.

We figure out what we’re feeling by first giving our emotions a name. So, you’ll want to help your child label her emotions. For example, if she’s having a meltdown, you might say, “You look like you’re angry right now. Do you feel angry?” You’re doing a couple of things here. First, you’re giving her a new way of analysing her behaviour. You’re looking for the emotion that triggers a reaction, so she’ll learn that this emotion is worth paying attention to. And second, you’re giving the emotion a name, which gives her a possible response to it. For example, once she knows she’s ‘angry’, she’ll know to take a time-out — as opposed to when she’s ‘hurt’, for which she’ll look for an adult to comfort her. Try and talk about emotions whenever they pop up. This might mean discussing what her favourite movie character is feeling in a particular scene, or what the loud woman at the supermarket must be going through.

3. Treat her emotions with respect when she talks about them.

We can wipe out all the progress our child makes by mistakenly dismissing her feelings. And it’s so easy to do this in the middle of a busy day. For example, a father might tell his son to stop crying because the trigger for those tears ‘isn’t that big a deal!’ What this tells the son, though, is that his feelings don’t count and need to be pushed aside. Instead, we need to work hard to accept and respect our children’s emotions, however out of proportion they might seem to us. So, in our example, if the son is crying because he lost a game at school, the father might say, “I know you’re sad you lost the game. I get sad when I lose, too.” This way, he’s validating his son’s emotion and treating it with respect. And he’ll probably notice that his son immediately becomes a bit calmer because of this validation.

4. Teach her that there’s a difference between feeling something and acting on it.

From our earlier example, the young boy upset about losing a game should certainly allow himself to feel sad about it. But it’s not okay that he hits his friend in frustration. Or a girl who doesn’t get the toy she wants should let herself feel annoyed, but not let that feeling justify throwing a tantrum.

5. Teach her healthy ways to handle her emotions instead of lashing out.

Here are some of her options:

  • Buy time to calm down. Emotions fade away quite quickly once we’ve recognised and accepted them. So, your child can learn to buy herself some time while this happens. She might try distracting herself by counting down from 10 or counting the number of green objects in the room. She might also take a short break by asking to go drink some water or get something from the other room.
  • Breathe deeply to reset herself. Breathing helps with the ‘fight-or-flight’ mode we default to when stressed. So your child can practise breathing slowly and deeply — in through her nose and out through her mouth. She could try counting to 3 while inhaling and counting to 6 while exhaling. The long exhalation will help reset her mind.
  • Use tasks and activities to help change her mood. She might want to use her colouring book (even adults use colouring to unwind, nowadays), listen to some calming music, sing her favourite song, read through a joke book, or go out and play for a while. She can make a list of things she loves and work her way through this list when she’s caught up in an emotion.

6. Help her to transition from ‘feeling’ to ‘problem-solving.’

Once she’s recognised, accepted, and worked with her emotions, she’s ready to start finding a solution. Here’s where you can help her come up with a plan of action. So, if she’s being picked on in school, help her brainstorm possible solutions — she could walk away and tell a teacher, for example. Or if she regularly does badly in tests, encourage her to decide how to prepare better? Remind her that she’s got more control over things than she thinks. She can

  1. Choose which situations to enter (e.g., stop spending time with someone who is mean to her),
  2. Do things to change them (e.g., study regularly so that she does better in tests),
  3. Choose what to focus on (e.g., enjoy playing a game rather than worrying about the score),
  4. Work with the emotions she feels (e.g., sit with you at the end of the day and talk about something that’s upsetting her).

By transitioning from feelings to solutions, you’re teaching her to bring logic and rationality back into the equation. But this will be possible only after you’ve let her feel and address her emotions.

7. Pay attention to how you respond to outbursts and meltdowns.

No-one is perfect, so your child will have outbursts and meltdowns. But the teaching continues. For example, if you give your child a treat (or extra love and attention) for calming down, she might begin to use her tantrums as a way of getting more treats and attention. Instead, support her but let her feel what she needs to feel. It could be as simple as saying, ‘I saw how annoyed you were, but you stayed calm. I’m very impressed!’

Here are some practical techniques many parents find useful.

These tools are real-life applications of the ideas we’ve just discussed.

1. The ‘emotional check-in’ to figure out how she’s feeling.

Your child can learn to do a quick self-assessment whenever she feels her emotions build. She’ll rate herself on a scale of one to five, based on how intense an emotion is:

  1. This emotion isn’t affecting me.
  2. I’m slightly affected. (Solution: Use positive self-talk to calm down.)
  3. I’m getting more affected. I can feel my heart-rate increasing. (Solution: Take 10 deep breaths.)
  4. I’m really affected. (Solution: Take a short break.)
  5. I can feel a meltdown coming. (Solution: Leave the situation till I calm down.)

2. Care tags to prepare for stressful situations in advance.

This is a technique developed by Jodi Smith MSW, LCSW, RPT-S. Here, you help your child fill out small pieces of paper, using three statements:

  1. When I … <describe a behaviour> (e.g., start shouting)
  2. I feel … <name an an emotion> (e.g., angry)
  3. I need … <list a healthy response> (e.g., to be left alone for a while)

Create tags for every behaviour and emotion she can come up with. You could also add a ‘must not do’ category for coping strategies that aren’t okay (e.g., hitting someone when she’s angry). Making the tags will help your child prepare for when she’s overwhelmed with an emotion and might not be able to think straight. And it’ll help you understand what your child decides she needs.

3. The ‘social story’ to help reframe situations.

Take the care-tags scenarios a step further by helping your child write a positive, creative story about possible problem situations. For example, if she gets anxious about performing in front of people, you can help to write a story about a child who has to sing in front of her entire school. The story can cover details like what the child was feeling, how she dealt with her emotions, and the coping strategy that lead to a happy ending.

Dealing with emotions is tough for everyone, but if you feel your child is struggling especially hard, consider consulting a specialist.

The Ed Psych Practice offers consultation, advice, and problem solving for parents, nurseries, schools, and colleges, in London. We have psychologists and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support.

Want to see how else you can help your child? You might enjoy some of our other posts.

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