For Mother’s Day I wanted to go on a hike. We drove 47 minutes to the state park that’s been on my bucket list, got out of the car to start the hike, and my son instantly had big tears because we wouldn’t let him bring his big dump truck that we all knew that we’d be carrying after 10 minutes.
He was obviously upset and started crying. Being confident that my son would be able to emotionally self-regulate after some time has passed, I took some deep breaths, played some music, and would occasionally throw out some words of validation (“I know, it stinks that you can’t take your dump truck.”)
After time did its trick, my son took a deep breath and said that he was almost done crying. He just had to get a few more cries out. He did and then we enjoyed over an hour of peaceful, fun hiking.
The next day, he was upset that I wouldn’t give him a popsicle in the morning. He went outside and came back refreshed. He said being outside calmed him down.
Kids can and will learn how to emotionally self-regulate if we teach them.
As parents, we shouldn’t have to be resigned to the fact that this is normal or a phase that they will eventually one day get over.
Because guess what? I can name my fair share of adults who are still throwing tantrums.
This is a skill we need to teach them, and we can start from a young age.
For example, while it was developmentally normal for my son to cry big tears and wail about not being able to take his dump truck, I knew, because we have been working on emotionally self-regulating, that this wouldn’t last terribly long, and I knew it wouldn’t escalate to him throwing himself on the ground, screaming and kicking.
I’m saying this not to brag about how great my son is although I’m quite proud of him. I’m saying this to let parents know that you’re not stuck waiting for a phase to be over, which spoiler alert is not ever going to be over if we don’t teach our kids.
Trust me. I teach high school. I much rather have kids that can emotionally regulate but might struggle some academically than kids who can do advanced math, but who can’t handle rejection or failure.
How do you go about teaching your kids how to emotionally self-regulate?
There are five steps that I recommend, but first I want to note that teaching emotional regulation isn’t something you do once and then you’re done. This is an ongoing life skill that you should support your kids with all throughout childhood. It will just look differently as your child ages.
Feelings and how to control those emotions are two very abstract concepts. They need to be taught. Here’s how.
Modeling is key. If you can’t emotionally regulate yourself, then how will your kids?
Let your kids see how you handle your emotions.
On more than one occasion, I’ve told my son that I’m feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, or exhausted and that I just need a moment to myself to lie down. I assure him that he did nothing wrong, this is normal, and that I’ll come back feeling recharged and refreshed.
When my son has thrown tantrums, I make sure to calm myself first, and I model deep breathing.
I’ve even noticed that when my son gets told no or is disappointed in answer to his questions, he does a deep sigh and then says, “Okay.” I do that.
*A quick note: I want to point out that by teaching kids how to emotionally self-regulate, we aren’t expecting them to be compliant robots and agree with everything we say.
They are allowed to be frustrated with our rules and boundaries. They are allowed to push back. They are allowed to voice their opinions. Our goal is for them to handle these emotions in a developmentally appropriate way.*
Think of scaffolding in terms of construction. It’s what helps the workers reach the top.
It’s a metaphor for providing students [Kids] with temporary, supportive structures that, just like in constructing a structure, are “gradually removed as the building nears completion.” (Riddett, 2015).
When a student [Kids] demonstrates proficient independence, the scaffold is no longer needed (Gibbons, 2002).
We can’t expect our kids to go from their current behavior to their goal behavior in one gigantic leap.
That’s where scaffolding comes into play.
At first, kids might not be ready to emotionally regulate on their own. They will need someone to co-regulate with them. That could include showing them how to breathe, breathing with them, guiding their hands, securing their environment, or putting them in safe space.
If your kid is having trouble with a certain skill that probably means they need some type of scaffolding.
For example, if they throw things when they are upset, remove all objects that are unsafe to throw and replace them with soft objects they can throw.
In addition, if you have a child who won’t go from wanting to hit to deep breathing, have them hit a pillow, punching bag, or play doh instead.
Once they are consistently mastering the behavior, you can gradually remove the scaffold and move on to the next step.
Get my scaffolding guide that will help you break down behaviors.
Now that you’ve taught emotional regulation, your kid needs a chance to practice what they’ve learned.
This is best done when everyone is calm and happy.
These are called greenlight strategies.
Here are some ways to practice…
Practice lets you know if your child gets it. If they don’t, you go back to teaching.
Finally, you’re going to want to reinforce.
And you reinforce by rewarding.
Just imagine if your boss only pointed out any time her employees did something wrong, morale would probably be pretty low in the company.
Same is true with our kids.
Rewarding the behavior we want, reinforces the idea that our kids should continue what they are doing.
Rewards can be tangible in the form of…
But they don’t always have to be tangible. In fact, I prefer intangible.
They can be in the form of…
Doing all five of these steps will have your child on the way to a lifetime of healthy emotional regulation.
Want more strategies that can help you with your kids? Check out my parenting guide Now What? Mindful Parenting Checklists for Life’s Hard Moments.