Understanding Emotional Regulation. How Parents Can Support and Guide Children to Learn These Skills
Kids are people. And, just like everyone, they have different personalities and ways of experiencing and interacting with the world.
As a parent, you’re raising your child to be a fully functioning adult. And this includes an awareness of how to navigate emotional regulation skills.
But this path can be full of pitfalls.
That’s because emotional regulation is tough. Especially when your brain hasn’t yet finished growing and developing.
It’s a moving target, to say the least.
Your child needs your support in learning emotional regulation skills. They also need your understanding to help them map and traverse their emotional landscape.
But you may feel at a bit of a loss to support and guide them through their big feelings.
After all, parents were once children, ourselves. And we may not have gotten the emotional support to regulate in the ways we needed.
Plus, you care about your child and their emotional wellbeing. But, when they’re dysregulated—this can act as a bit of a double-edged sword.
That’s because you’re so concerned about their emotional life that you may get sucked right into the fray—and two dysregulated people are much less effective at amending a situation.
So, what can you do to recognize the signs of impending emotional dysregulation, and how can you support your child to get back to baseline when they’re out of sorts?
This article will explore emotional regulation skills for kids. It will examine the differences between tantrums and meltdowns. And, it will give you some strategies to help support and guide your child through the thicket of their big, unwieldy feelings, and toward calmer waters.
Let’s dive right in.
What are emotional regulation skills and why are they important?
Here’s the thing—we’re not born with emotional regulation.
Particularly when we’re young children—our emotions run the show.
At this age, we don’t yet possess the self-awareness to ask ourselves “Am I crying because I’m hungry or tired?” We just cry. We cry until someone who loves us helps us to self-soothe and regulate our emotions.
As we grow older, we begin to learn skills to understand and monitor our emotions. We also gain the ability to modulate them.
We develop an awareness that we can choose how to express our feelings, and that they are under our control.
And that’s emotional regulation in a nutshell.
It’s our awareness of and ability to be in the driver’s seat of our feelings and how we express them.
And, because you’re a parent, you already know—these skills must be learned.
All kids struggle at one point or another with regulating themselves. They act impulsively when big feelings take control.
Emotional regulation skills include—
Being aware of how we’re feeling in real time
Knowing when we’re becoming dysregulated
Having strategies to lower our internal temperature, to avoid outbursts and impulsive actions
It’s easy to see why a child may struggle with these skills, without outside guidance and support.
Kids live in the moment, and they may not have the experience to be aware of external or internal triggers, or a keen awareness of when they’re being tested or activated.
But, learning these skills is an important part of our growth and development.
That’s because they’re vital to being a full member of our society.
Teaching kids that their feelings impact the people and world around them is a key component of emotional regulation. However emotional regulation is different from self-control. Self-control is more of a social construct, whereas self-regulation skills positively affect both the world and the person practicing them.
Because if you’re feeling unregulated but are not acting out on it—you still feel the effects internally. Self-regulation is about bringing the solution home to our bodies—so both ourselves and those around us can benefit from our ability to regulate our emotions.
Self-regulation skills are also important for participating in the world and forming and maintaining relationships.
If your child struggles to regulate their emotions, it can negatively affect your relationship with them. It can also hinder their ability to form and maintain relationships with their peers and teachers.
This could cause them to feel isolated, depressed, or frustrated, and further exacerbate their issues with emotional awareness and regulation.
That’s why teaching them emotional regulation strategies is important. It can empower them to know that they’re in control of how they’re feeling—and show them ways to be aware of and lower their internal temperature when needed.
Let’s help you recognize what they’re experiencing, so you can best help them navigate their emotional regulation needs. Understanding the differences between a tantrum and a meltdown can be a great tool in your emotional support toolkit.
Is it a tantrum or a meltdown? Spotting the key differences between these two emotional regulation issues.
It’s important to know there are important distinctions between these two issues. While they may look similar on the surface, they come from different places in your child’s emotional landscape.
Knowing the differences will help you recognize them and respond proactively and productively if and when they occur.
A tantrum is often a child’s attempt to get something they want or need. This could be a toy, a snack, or a favorite activity.
Because children are impulsive, not getting what they want in the timeframe they expect can quickly lead to emotional overload. A tantrum can also be an attempt to gain attention and recognition of needs being unmet.
Children with issues that impact their learning and attention skills (such as ADHD) may be more prone to tantrums.
Think of a tantrum like a pot boiling over—your child has not yet learned the skills to recognize when their emotions are building, and they have not yet mastered the skills to lower their temperature and keep things in perspective.
Tantrums often occur because children don’t yet have the emotional awareness and regulation skills or the language skills to express themselves and their needs fully. This leads to feelings of frustration and anger.
Like an unwatched pot left to simmer on the stove, their feelings may bubble over.
A meltdown, in contrast, is a response to feeling overwhelmed.
Meltdowns happen when a person feels flooded with input that they’re unable to process. This can include sensory input and information overload.
To return to our water simile—imagine a cup of water that someone is pouring into from a pitcher. The cup gets filled and begins to overflow, but the person keeps pouring more into it.
That’s a recipe for a meltdown.
When our senses are overwhelmed by stimuli, or our systems are stressed to the breaking point—a meltdown is our system’s way of shouting “Stop the world! I want to get off!”
Another important difference between tantrums and meltdowns is that tantrums tend to lessen as a child grows and learns better language and emotional regulation skills.
Meltdowns, on the other hand, are not within an individual's control. They involve being in sensory overload, which some believe triggers our body’s involuntary fight-or-flight response.
Meltdowns are a response from our nervous system to get back to our preferred baseline and shut out what’s causing us to feel overwhelmed.
Understanding the underlying differences between tantrums and meltdowns is crucial because it will help you know which tools and strategies to use to support and help your child overcome the experience.
Let’s explore some strategies you can use to guide your child out of times of emotional dysregulation, as well as ways to enhance their overall emotional regulation skills.
How can I help my child learn emotional regulation?
You’re already here reading this blog—that shows you’re committed to supporting your child in learning and practicing emotional regulation skills
Give yourself a pat on the back and a round of applause!
We’re here to guide you in your quest to uplift your child and their development.
Here are some suggestions for creating a supportive home environment for your child, to assist them in emotional regulation—
Establish clear expectations—sometimes, your kiddo may struggle to understand what’s expected of them, unless it’s spelled out. Stating and repeating your expectations for their behavior and tasks clearly (both out loud and in writing) can help them understand what’s expected and plan ahead. This can reduce risks for overstimulation and can help them make transitions at home without incident.
Connect—set aside time at the end of the day to talk with your child. Hear their thoughts, ask them questions, and just spend some quality time together. Showing your child that they are important and worthy of your support and attention can help them regulate and express their feelings healthily.
Set routines—daily transitions can be really hard for kids to navigate. Changes in routines can throw kids for a loop, and create perfect conditions for tantrums and meltdowns. Setting a clear routine for your child can help. This is especially important when it comes to bedtime. Establishing a bedtime wind-down routine can help your child ease into bedtime. This can reduce risks for emotional dysregulation that often happens at this time of day when they’re tired but fighting the idea of going to bed.
Use play—children learn so much through play. Speak to them in their language by using play to embed emotional regulation strategies and ideas. They’re more likely to be engaged and receptive to information that’s presented in this way. Using dolls or stuffies can be a great way to model regulation strategies or create narratives around these skills. Have fun!
Be a model—Actions speak louder than words. That’s why it’s important to model emotional regulation skills for your child. They’re always watching how you navigate life’s situations, so this is a great opportunity for you to show them how to use strategies like taking a deep breath, stepping away from a situation, and staying calm under pressure.
Teach them mindfulness—our emotions are reflections of our internal landscape. Trying to think your way out of a feeling issue is like trying to paddle a boat with a tennis racket. You need the right tool for the job. To get our nervous system back into its resting state, mindfulness strategies come in very handy. This includes deep breathing, tapping (such as EFT techniques), naming the feeling and where it shows up in the body, and co-regulation through touch. Meditation apps can also come in handy.
Consider the source and act accordingly—going back to our discussion about tantrums vs. meltdowns, you need to recognize why your child is dysregulated. If they’re in sensory overload, assess what in their environment might be causing this. Then, address and reduce the causes of their sensory stimulation issues. For example, dim the lights if it’s too bright. If they’re responding to loud sounds or too much auditory input, then reduce these or remove them from that setting.
If these strategies feel too complex or too difficult to master and implement into your daily routine—don’t despair.
The Loop is here to support you in learning these and other strategies and to work with your child to use them effectively.
Our team of therapists and learning support professionals includes a behavioral specialist and occupational therapists. These professionals are specially trained to assess and treat emotional regulation and sensory processing and integration skills in children in need.
We create customized treatment plans and support for each unique child we treat—because it’s our mission to help them thrive in school, at home, and in life.
When your child struggles with emotional regulation—you struggle, too.
The Loop will help you learn effective strategies to help them manage their big feelings while offering them expert guidance and support to navigate their emotional experiences—both in and out of school.
We’ll help them understand that they’re in control of their feelings, and transform their challenges into their superpowers.
After all, the world needs more deeply feeling people. We’ll help your child learn how to recognize and manage their emotions, so they’re the captain of their ship and know how to adjust their sails.
The Loop is your go-to destination for top-notch therapy and learning support services. Our Chicago private school partners gain exclsuvie access to our extensive array of services and supports, including—speech, language, occupational, and behavioral therapy. Also on our menu are executive function coaching, learning remediation, and educational consultancy and advocacy services. With so much to offer, it’s time for your school to get in the loop!