Helping Your Child to Regulate Emotions

You might have heard of the task where a candy bar is placed in front of a child to see if he or she can refrain from eating it for a period of time in order to obtain a better reward later on. How do children develop the skills needed to regulate themselves so that they can delay their satisfaction? The ability to regulate emotions is influenced by biological processes (e.g., temperament) as well as social learning. Regulating emotions is a process in which children monitor, evaluate, and change their emotional experience in order to meet their goals. If a child has a goal of eating a candy bar immediately, and believes that delaying eating it will cause pain, he or she may eat the candy bar in order to avoid the anticipated feeling of being upset. Alternatively, if the child believes that the anticipated reward might cause greater joy, then he or she may implement strategies to control an immediate response.

While temperament may predispose children towards certain responses to emotional experiences, children can also develop emotion regulation strategies through interactions with parents and caregivers. A parent who demonstrates supportiveness, empathy, and responsiveness can help a child develop better emotion regulation skills. A child having difficulty with homework may display frustration and “regulate” this emotion by giving up. Labeling emotions a child is experiencing (“I can see you’re frustrated with your homework”) can both help a child feel supported and promote emotional awareness. Parents might then suggest alternate ways to manage frustration (“try taking a deep breath”), an alternative strategy to manage the problem (“You might want to work on just this one piece”), and encouragement (such as saying “I like how you’re handling this”).

A parent’s supportiveness, empathy, responsiveness, suggestions, and encouragement can generate abilities to regulate emotions to help children perform a variety of tasks such as initiating social interactions and performing chores and to manage a variety of emotional experiences. Sometimes life experiences, as well as emotional responses, can feel overwhelming to both parents and children. In these instances, therapy can offer a helping hand to support parents and children in the development of emotion regulation skills.

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