Emotional self-regulation in children is a means to regulate their emotions and to keep them in balance. It is something many of us learn to do naturally do as infants. We discover the comfort of warmth, nourishment, movement, and the presence of others. We are greeted by love and concern during times of stress and upset, and we find our cries bring solutions to our problems. For others, self-soothing does not come as easy. We might have suffered colic or other health and environmental problems that impacted our ability to calm ourselves when stressed or upset, leading us to problems in regulating our emotions, which in turn, actually cause more problems!
In my years of working as a school counselor, I helped many students ride the waves of their emotions. I came to recognize how alone and isolated some of them felt, suffering from low self-esteem having been identified at school and at home as dramatic, or a troublemaker. Because of a lack of forming positive connections with others, they also had difficulty developing appropriate social skills with peers. This, in turn, would lead to feelings of rejection further compounding their feelings of isolation and sadness, causing even more difficulties in their ability to regulate their emotions. A vicious cycle for sure, and one that causes a lot of pain for these children. And their parents!
Working with young kids all the way through their high school years, I have no doubt that developing a solid awareness of our bodies and the sensations that rise in our day to day occurrences can make a huge difference in how well we are able to regulate our emotional responses to our experiences. It is actually these bodily sensations, often not in our full awareness, surging throughout our body that is the culprit of our impulsive and dramatic reactions. Focusing on developing an awareness of how the body feels in different emotional states, whether they be positive or negative, and delaying or circumventing our responses to troubling bodily sensations, can be a lifesaver.
I encourage all of my clients to develop an awareness of the sensations they are experiencing in their body, and also to create their own toolset of positive ways to calm themselves down, and cope when tensions begin to mount. A lot of kids might know this, but how they deal with stress will quickly indicate if they need help. There are some ways in which you, as parents, can help your child learn how to better regulate his or her emotions. Being honest with yourself about how they are managing their emotions is a good first step. Also, helping them with emotional regulation when they are young is best for both you and your child because it is more challenging to approach some of the more frightening and maladaptive ways they may choose to cope as they mature into teenagers.
Developing a tool kit can actually be a lot of fun for you and your child. When my daughter was in preschool, I noticed it took her a long time to calm herself down when upset. It was hard not only for her, but also disruptive to the entire family. I established a “Calm Down Corner” in a quiet room in our house. This area was composed of a small folding kid-sized card table which I stocked with appealing artistic activities. There were stress balls and crayons, colored construction paper, stickers, picture books and other odds and ends. Periodically I would set out new things to keep the space fresh and inviting.
Another thing that also really helped settle her down was a mini trampoline which she would jump on while listening to music of her liking. Sometimes we would take the dog and go for a walk around the neighborhood, or to the park. If her melt down was at night, she would love some time in a warm bath filled with bubbles, or quickly transform her mood in the kitchen helping to make dinner or bake cookies with me.
Time in her room was not ever a punishment (cleaning the toilet was!). She would flop down on her bed, accompanied by a book of her choosing, a soft blanket and maybe Jolie, our family dog. I explain all these things to you because these strategies, or tools in her toolkit, worked for her as a child just as they continue to work for her now as a young adult. At 19, she still finds comfort in them as a means to soothe herself when feeling stressed or upset.
If your child is already a teen, developing his or her own toolset is definitely still a good idea, and will help tremendously in the years to come as he or she matures. Again the question to answer is how well do they cope with the ups and downs of life and manage their stress? Teens may retreat to technological outlets, especially during the time of Covid. This is okay to an extent, it momentarily will distract them and may circumvent problematic behavior, but it is not really a self-soothing tool. A tool is something that engages them in an experience that calms and soothes and replaces the unpleasant sensations surging in their bodies with pleasant ones. Examples of tools, also in my daughter’s toolkit, are spending time outdoors and in nature, engaging in physical activity whether it be sports or chores, like cleaning her room or doing her laundry. Deep and intentional breathing can quiet the mind and slow things down to the present moment, sitting quietly in prayer or meditation, journaling, reading, and art-making. Your teen’s interests, and what works, will be the guide.
No matter whether your child is in preschool or high school, as a parent you can help your child realize that as they engage in their toolkit of strategies, they are learning how to soothe themselves, and calm their bodily sensations, in-kind and loving ways. This is an invaluable resource you can help them to discover. Self soothing is key to instill feelings of wellbeing. Simply stated, emotional regulation is your child or teen’s ability to recognize and calm unpleasant bodily sensations before they have the opportunity to dominate their experience in some sort of behavioral expression that causes trouble in their lives. Besides, good bodily sensations result in good feelings, good experiences, and build good relationships which is all your child or teen wants anyway!
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