We are all born with emotions, however, understanding and dealing with emotions is a learned skill that develops over the early years of our life. In this article, we look at the emotions that children experience and how as parents, we can help our children understand and cope with these emotions. This, in turn, becomes a skill that the child develops inside themselves over time and is called ‘emotional regulation’.
The Many Varied Emotions
All human beings experience a range of emotions over the course of their lives. Some emotions are referred to as ‘basic’ or ‘core’ which are happiness, anger, sadness, and fear. Connected to these ‘basic’ emotions are others such as frustration, irritability, anxiety, joy, loneliness, sorrow, disappointment, loss. There is also a multitude of other common emotions including shame, guilt, powerlessness, helplessness, interest, curiosity, and surprise.
There are some emotions that are referred to as ‘secondary’ because they are emotional reactions to other emotions. For example, a child may feel ashamed as a result of becoming anxious or sad. By the time children reach the age of 4 or 5, they are likely to have experienced many of these emotions.
Our emotional worlds are complex and sensitive systems. As such, the way we react to our children’s emotions has a big impact on the development of secondary emotions as well as on their emotional intelligence (the way they understand and manage emotions).
How to Assist Emotional Regulation in Children
How children manage and respond to their emotions independently is known as emotional regulation. Young children learn how to manage and respond to their emotions predominantly from their parents. However, other adults and people around them including teachers, peers, and siblings also contribute to a child’s emotional learning.
Parents are the most important people in a child’s life and as such are the most influential in helping children learn how to identify, understand, manage and respond to their emotions. Parents need to not only teach their children about the different emotions by naming them but also to sit down and talk with their children about what has happened that caused them to feel the way they do. And during this time to listen attentively to their child’s experience, acknowledging that their feelings are valid and then helping them work out what they could do to feel better.
Process of Emotional Regulation
As soon as possible after an emotional experience (or during it), sit down with your child and discuss what has happened in a calm, gentle and compassionate way and help your child to:
- Identify their Emotions
- Identify the Triggers (or experiences) for their Emotions
- Validate their Emotions by empathising and offering to understand
- Teach skills to deal with these Emotions Independently
Putting words to feelings and helping a child link experiences with feelings as well as being a safe, compassionate listener offers containment to children’s emotions. And this process is part of learning emotional regulation, alongside suggesting tools and strategies.
In addition, it is very important that children observe effective emotional regulation skills by parents as well as other role models. This means allowing a level of feelings to be seen as well as the containment and discussion of them between parents or adults. When this happens the process mentioned above (teaching) and observed behaviour are aligned and this strengthens a child’s learning.
Tips for Parents to Support Emotional Regulation in Children
- Provide a Safe Environment
Similarly, to how infant’s and toddler’s development is enhanced through a loving and safe environment, emotional regulation is also enhanced in the same way through childhood. If parents provide a comfortable and safe environment for children to express and deal with their emotions, they are much more likely to progress in their emotional intelligence.
- Be Patient
Emotional Regulation is a skill that develops over years and is often an up and down journey, not a straight progression. There may be times where the process of teaching emotional regulation is difficult, especially with strong or ‘big’ emotions – however, this is normal. Remembering to be patient through the process is a great way to support your child.
- Frequency is Key
Speaking to your child about their emotions frequently and consistently is important. If you only choose to teach and support emotional regulation when a child has an overwhelming or strong emotion, the long-term effects will not be as great. Make emotions a normal part of your family’s conversations and you will see both emotional regulation and emotional intelligence develop over time.
Karen Potter specialises in child behaviour and parenting – offering support, education, and guidance to help you better understand and support your child and may work with your child to help him/her manage their emotions more effectively. For more information on Emotional Regulation, contact Karen on 0438 389 829 or visit Karen Potter’s website today to find out more.