Helping Children Manage Their Emotions

Categories: Behaviour

We talk a lot about the importance of teaching our children how to manage big emotions and develop self-control. These are undeniably important life skills for every child to learn, however like all skills, they take time and practice to master.

It is widely acknowledged that we can, and should, be teaching our children self-regulation skills from an early age. However, it is also important to understand that the ability to regulate one’s emotions is impacted by a number of factors. The most significant one being brain development.

While children start to gain the ability to control their emotions and behaviours around the ages of 3 to 4 years, this is a process that continues through childhood. In fact, neuroscience research has shown that the brain connections related to emotional regulation continue to develop well into adolescence. Interestingly, the developmental process for regulating positive emotions is different from that of regulating negative emotions.

Other contributing factors which impact the development of regulation skills include:

  • Temperament
  • Socio-economic background
  • Trauma
  • Chronic stress
  • Neurological differences such as autism spectrum disorder, sensory processing disorder and ADHD.
  • Exhaustion/sleep disorders
  • Hunger

A lack of close, supportive relationships with adults and punitive discipline methods are also believed to negatively impact self-regulation.

Some of these factors may have a short-term impact on a child’s ability to self-regulate, for example hunger or fatigue, while others may have long term developmental implications.

From a parenting perspective, it is important to keep expectations realistic when it comes to a child’s ability to self-regulate. While they may be able to successfully control their emotions sometimes, this does not mean they will always be able to. It can be helpful to reflect that even as an adult it can be difficult to contain emotions under some circumstances, for example in cases of stress, illness or fatigue. It stands to reason that a child’s threshold will be even lower.

We can help children struggling to manage their emotions by practising “co-regulation”, which means helping a child settle through strategies such as talking, encouraging movement and providing other sensory input/output.

Learn more about the sensory system and coping strategies here.

Parenting expert Maggie Dent says that there are many common sense strategies that parents and carers can use to help kids regulate their emotions:  “…children need lots of music, lots of loving connections with grown ups, lots of movement…and to be given food that sustains their energy.”

To hear more about what Maggie has to say about teaching children self-regulation, check out her Parent TV video here.