As an adult, it's clear that managing big feelings isn’t easy for anyone. From personal relationships at home to professional interactions at work, controlling emotions can be tough. But, it can be especially difficult for small children learning to regulate their emotions. And, let’s not discount how hard that is on parents who just want to make sure their children are happy. Let’s dive into how you can help your little one regulate their big feelings.
Feelings are something we experience every day. On a biological level, they are an internal mental response to external stimuli. Feelings are noncognitive, meaning they don’t need to be thought about for them to occur; they just happen. Feelings are like a reflex, in that you cannot help but have them. You CAN control your response to a feeling, modulate its severity or reframe it in a useful way, but you cannot stop having feelings just by merely observing or ignoring them.
Feelings are instinctive and automatic responses. Feelings can be seen in facial expressions and body posture. They can be heard in cries of distress or coos of satisfaction. And certainly, they can be felt. There are dozens of different kinds of feelings, and we have as many words for them: happiness, fear, surprise or disgust. Feelings are deeply visceral experiences, that is, they’re represented in physiological expressions within your very own body. If you’re feeling sad, you may experience a tightness in your throat, a watering in your eyes, and a sinking feeling in your stomach. On the other hand, anger might increase your body temperature, heart rate, and perspiration levels. Feelings might be mental states, but they are very clearly tied to the physical reality of our embodied cognition.
Strong and distinct feelings are believed to become a possibility at approximately 18-24 months old, when infants reach the capacity for symbolization, self-reflection, and basic reasoning.
The human psyche, awash with so many powerful and sometimes overwhelming feelings, needs an organized way to regulate them. This strategy is called self regulation, and it addresses the entire gamut of modulations that one must take in order to control their emotions and, importantly, their reactions to them. Self regulation is the ability to monitor and manage your feelings in ways that are acceptable to your sense of self as well as society at large. Self regulation is key to producing acceptable behaviors and fostering beneficial adaptations, positive well-being, loving relationships and learning. Because self regulation deals with our reactions to different stressors, situations and feelings, it lays the foundation for all other conscious cognitive activities for the rest of our lives. Self regulation requires the development of self-awareness, emotional intelligence, the efficient filtering of sensory input, coping mechanisms, relating well to others, and attentive focus. Self regulation has a positive influence on the further acquisition of skills, such as educational outcomes.
In a broader sense, self regulation is “the self-directive process through which learners transform their mental abilities into task related skills”, that is, the conversion of feelings into well-adapted behaviors. It is the iterative process of monitoring progress toward a stated or implicit goal, evaluating outcomes, and redirecting unsuccessful efforts to revised ones. In order to be self-regulated, one must be aware of their own thought processes, and be motivated to actively participate in their own development. It goes beyond mere self-control, that is, the ability to keep feelings and behaviors in check. Self regulation involves the active management of those challenges with a degree of mindfulness.
Children learn self regulation through recognition that some stimulus or stressor is upsetting them. They identify it and then apply a calming strategy on their own. It’s a trial and error process that your child must undertake. They don’t have to be alone, however, and it’s your job as a parent to give your child support and ample opportunities to work through challenging situations. You have to strike a balance between letting your child process their own feelings and taking an involved role in their emotional coaching. Be patient and exhibit the same emotional control and understanding you wish to see fostered in your child.
Some specific strategies can help you teach self regulation to kids. Getting your child to recognize when they’re upset for a reason, such as being “hangry” (hungry and angry) or tired gives you an opportunity to provide them with reasonable solutions and deescalate the negative feeling.
Making sure they have time to play and run around outdoors helps get rid of excess energy which could otherwise cause them to feel agitated later in the day. Blowing bubbles for 10 or 15 minutes outside can be a fun and mindful way to focus on one’s breathing and slow down their racing mind. Reading stories and then discussing the characters and their emotional states, as well as analyzing and attempting to explain their behaviors, allows children to reflect on their own values and regulatory behaviors as expressed in a fictional microcosm. These strategies should foster self regulation skills.
There are some tactics that could even be used as part of a game. Popular children’s games like musical chairs, freeze dancing, or red-light-green-light require executive control so the player can alternate between activated and deactivated, excited and still modes. “Loud or quiet” is another variation on this theme, where children alternate between raucous noise and hushed whispers.
This is where the role of self regulation skills come into play. Arming your child with sensory tools, or body tools, can help them calm their body all on their own. Teaching your child these skills can help them achieve self regulation in situations in and out of the home.
You may wonder if your combined efforts are working. Look for signs of skills related to self regulation in your child. This could be anything, from resolving a feeling of being overly frustrated or excited on their own, or calming themselves down after something exciting or upsetting happens. It could take the form of sustained attentive focus on a task, or transitioning well from one activity to another. Impulse control and playing well with others also indicates healthy self regulation.
Most children learn self regulation between the ages of 3 and 7, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t imbue regulatory behaviors in your toddler or infant before that age. The road to self regulation begins in a baby’s earliest months and continues refinement well after age seven.
You may have noticed that babies have almost no self-control, and naturally act on thoughts and instinctive drives without the ability to regulate or stop themselves. Sensitive guidance from parents and caregivers is critical for ensuring the healthy management of feelings and behaviors later in life. You can help your child to soothe themselves. When you comfort a sobbing newborn by speaking gently and holding them until they stop crying, it teaches them that they can count on loved ones to help them regain control when they’re feeling overwhelmed. When a 9-month-old steals the TV remote and you gently put it away and replace it with a fascinating toy, explaining that the remote is not a toy, you teach the child about appropriate behavior and how to cope with disappointment.
If you’ve ever cared for a toddler, you know they have a mind of their own and strong feelings that they may cling to stubbornly. They find that shouting and saying “no!” is a powerful way to assert their individuality and independence as a completely unique entity separate from their parents. Toddlers can become easily frustrated in part because they sense that there are so many things they want to do, but cannot competently execute or understand. As parents, it’s important to recognize their level of ability, and help them work through each problem by speaking to them gently (even if you are frustrated as well) and helping them break down the task into more manageable steps in order to complete it. They will ultimately feed off your calm and confident energy, and feel more secure while working through a challenge.
Structured routines can be a helpful way to make toddlers feel secure and in control of things. As long as you give your child opportunities to make their own choices, they’ll know you trust them to make good decisions. Let them make decisions about what to read or have for snack-time and foster independent play from an early age.
No matter how many parenting methods you research and try to perfect, big feelings are always going to feel –– well –– big. Growing pains, both physical and emotional, can be hard to weather, but with your guidance and support, your child will be well equipped to thrive in their school studies, extracurricular activities, and social life, and maybe even thank you later on –– but you may have to wait quite a while for that.