Why Children Need to Learn to Manage Their Emotions

Why Children Need to Learn to Manage Their Emotions

Takeaway: Children with good emotional self-regulation know how to handle their emotions in different situations. Without it, they would struggle to (1) Make friends, (2) Succeed at school, and (3) Stay mentally healthy. But as a parent, there are simple things you can do to help your child regulate her emotions.  

Babies understanding of emotions is a simple experience.

Children go through a long and eventful ‘emotional’ journey as they grow up. Infants have a stock of preprogrammed emotions which are initially just physical reactions to their environment. That’s why they cry when eating bad-tasting food or sleep when they’re warm and comfortable.

But soon, these physical reactions develop into more complex ‘feelings’.

These feelings represent a baby’s internal experience of emotions. So she might feel ‘happy’ when she’s with her uncle but ‘scared’ around strangers. And as her brain develops, she’ll begin talking about her emotions and they’ll gradually become more complex. She started with the ‘basic eight’ — anger, fear, joy, sadness, interest, surprise, disgust, and shame — but now inherits many more. For example, anger might evolve into resentment. And fear might show up as anxiety. There are quite a few of these complex emotions, like shyness, embarrassment, pride, empathy, etc.

A huge part of growing up is learning to manage our emotions — a skill called ‘emotional self-regulation’.

At some point in their journey, children begin to learn how to recognise emotions as they arise, and decide how to deal with them. They also learn to negotiate with these emotions — consciously changing how they experience and respond to them. This ‘emotional self-regulation’ is crucial, as we’ll soon see. It affects their school performance, social life, mental health, and future careers.

A child with good emotional self-regulation knows how to behave in different situations.

This means she might stop herself from shouting in the middle of an argument because she knows that expressing her anger that way isn’t going to help. Or she might fight through boredom and frustration while studying because she knows it’ll make tomorrow’s class less stressful. Emotional self-regulation is about goal-oriented behaviour. Rather than being caught up in the moment and swept away by her emotions, a well-adjusted child stays in control because she doesn’t lose sight of why she’s doing something.

This emotional self-regulation stems initially from genetics.

Some children are born with a greater capacity to self-regulate. They find it easier to control their reactions and might not have as strong an emotional reaction as others. Among children who have strong reactions, some experience a slow build-up of emotions while others feel them instantly — often responding even before they’re aware of how they’re feeling. The key is that children are born with these temperaments and reaction styles. And certain traits like ADHD or anxiety can make it even harder for them to self-regulate.

The environment plays a role, too.

Thankfully, all children can learn to manage their emotions better, given the right environment. And this is where parents come in. How you respond to your child’s behaviour can help or hinder her emotional self-regulation. If you give in to tantrums, your child learns that it’s normal to give in to emotions. In contrast, if you help talk her through her feelings, she’ll start addressing them even when you aren’t around. It’s your ‘external’ regulation that sets up her ‘internal’ regulation skills.

Emotional self-regulation isn’t a luxury. All children need to develop this skill because it will affect the rest of their lives.

A child’s base is her tribe — i.e., her family and friends. So, if she can’t self-regulate (for example, if she’s always throwing tantrums), she’s going to put people off and lose a vital safety net. Without deep, loving connections, she’s likely to feel isolated and anxious or become angry and aggressive. Either way, she’ll feel unbalanced and uncared for, and is more vulnerable to being picked on and bullied. Also, children who can’t self-regulate are at higher risk for disorders like oppositional defiant disorder , depression, anxiety disorders, and eating disorders. And she’ll struggle at school, too. Because doing well academically (and later at work) requires handling anxiety, boredom, frustration, and a host of other emotions. For example, she’ll find it hard to do well in an exam if anxiety repeatedly gets the better of her. And if she can’t sit with frustration during a tough class, she won’t be able to learn anything significantly advanced. Without the right support, these social, mental health, and academic struggles can blend to form a toxic downward spiral.

But there’s is good news, too. You can help your child if she has trouble regulating her emotions.

Your child will need to learn to (1) Be aware of her emotions, (2) Be able to name them, (3) Be able to spot what triggers them, and (4) Deal with them in a healthy way (instead of compulsively expressing or suppressing them). As you can see, these are all things you can teach. And your most powerful teaching strategy is to model good behaviour because your child’s brain soaks up your behaviour-patterns like a sponge. You’ll also want to encourage her to talk about her emotions, because you’ll help her feel heard and safe by validating them. And this in turn will calm her down and regulate her emotions even better. Very quickly, you’ve put her in a positive, upward spiral that’s just as powerful (but in a good way) as the negative one we looked at earlier.

Remember, emotional self-regulation is a skill. And like all skills, it gets better the more your child practises.

Each tough situation is a chance for her to flex her ‘self-regulation’ muscles. Your challenge will be to help at critical points but then step out of the way so she can practise for herself. For example, if she’s frustrated with her homework, you could ask her what she’s feeling and talk her through her frustration. You could give her a different perspective and teach her coping skills like counting to ten, taking a short break, or doing some breathing exercises. But the idea is that at some point you step back and let her practise these skills herself. So, perhaps the next day you don’t sit with her, but check in on her a few times to see if she’s using the techniques you taught her. And all the while, you’re supportive and affirming. Yes, it might seem like a big ask, but most parents find that the payoff is worth it.

Of course, if you’re concerned that your suggestions and guidance aren’t helping, it’s always worth 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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