We have all seen the whirlwind of emotions that fill the day-to-day of our children. One minute they’re jumping for joy, and the next they’re throwing a terrible tantrum… and you have no idea what changed in that two-minute cycle.
While it’s hard to pinpoint the tremors that cause such seismic emotional shifts, it’s usually small situations that set off big mood swings. Children naturally have a lot of energy, fueled by the discovery of what’s new, mysterious, different and fun. When someone or something unexpectedly derails their exploration, you can see how chaos easily ensues.
This is how children learn, and it’s normal for them to experience highs and lows. But that doesn’t mean you can’t take steps to shift the balance back toward calm.
Take for example, a trip to the mall – a notorious emotional pendulum for kids. As the predictable tantrum erupts over your “no” to purchasing a toy that catches your child’s eye, do you find yourself wondering, “How will he ever go to school or anywhere he can’t have what he wants, when he wants it?” Or, “Will my daughter ever play nice with others?”
We begin to create and to live so many situations and variables that it becomes distressing. It seems a completely unregulated situation in which the child seems to have no control. In addition, we also begin to get impatient, irritated and stressed with the whole situation.
So how can we help our children?
It begins with understanding that this out-of-control feeling is not only our children’s, but ours as well. And we have the ability to foster development of their emotional regulation so that they can begin to handle a range of situations with more consistent, calm reactions.
What is Emotional Regulation?
According to Thompson (1994), emotional regulation is “consisting of internal and external processes involved in initiating, maintaining, and modulating the occurrence, intensity, and expression of emotions.”
Over the years, numerous researchers have studied this question and evaluated the impact that regulation plays in preschool and school-age children. One well-known experiment involved a marshmallow. Two situations were presented to four-year-olds and they had to choose one – either they ate a marshmallow or they waited (looking at it) and then got two as a reward for their patience.
The results of this study showed that children who could postpone gratification had better results at school and in their careers. They were also more able to recognize higher levels of well-being and satisfaction. This makes the case for the benefits of self-regulation.
How Can We Help Promote This Regulation?
Different studies indicate that this emotional competence counts on the contribution of parents through three components:
- the regulation and expression of their emotions
- the reaction they have regarding children’s emotions
- the communication that exists with the children regarding the emotions.
It is important for parents to make room for talking with their children about emotions, what they mean, their physical reactions, thoughts, how we can control them, how we can learn from them, and so on – this is key. Taking this kind of action helps support your child in more having a range of approaches to tap into when facing different situations in their daily life.
Additionally, your child will be able to tap into empathy, realizing that these emotions are common to everyone. Now he or she will see that there is room to talk, and that they can tell their story, too. Reinforce this by listening carefully when your child speaks to you, giving them both your attention and focus. This attention will be essential to make him feel comfortable, safe and respected. Talk openly, clarify doubts and discourage repression of emotions. All of these are important in our lives, and therefore repression may have long-term negative effects, including anxiety and/or depression.
In addition, it is important that this regulation is not only an emotional one, so try to expand this communication to a more psychological and behavioral level. These areas are also important to understand and manage the expectations, timings, the regular boring situations and those not to your liking 100 percent.
Above all, do not forget that any parent is a model and therefore you must also externalize your emotions so that your child can do so as well. When you suppress your emotions, it is possible that your child does, too.
Thompson RA (1994). Emotion regulation: A theme in search of a definition. In: Fox NA, editor. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development. Serial No. 240 ed.