Hannah Abrahams, the leading Educational and Child Psychologist on the Zoono Family Panel, offers her guidance on how to support your child’s emotional regulation so they can become happier and less reactive to whatever life throws at them.
While some children will intuitively be more able to name their emotions and thus tame them, emotional regulation is in fact a lifelong skill that is developed over time.
We’ve all seen videos online of toddlers having a temper tantrum because of something that we consider to be minor; they weren’t allowed to peel their own banana or Dad isn’t letting them buy the extra packet of biscuits in the supermarket, for example.
Whatever the reason, big or small, it’s our role to help children identify their emotions and express them in a way that feels supporting, containing, and validating. All children experience big emotions and tantrums are part of a developmental process, but this empathic guidance is here to help you as a parent as much as your child. We also know that stress has a huge impact on concentration and performance. If children feel anxious or stressed, they’re attention and listening skills, as well as their exploratory behaviour, is negatively impacted.
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How to Teach Children about Emotional Self-Regulation
- Start by Identifying Emotions
The first step is to teach children to identify different emotions. By the age of five, most children can recognise and name emotions, such as anger, happiness, or sadness, but it’s beneficial to widen their emotional vocabulary by teaching them about more complex feelings, such as anxiety, frustration or disappointment.
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Talk to them about how they feel and work together to distinguish these more complex emotions. Ask where in the body they feel something, and what the feeling is. You can even mark out the different emotions on a body chart that they can refer back to.
By recognising when complex or big emotions are building within the body, children can begin to implement supportive mechanisms before they get too overwhelming. For example, if they feel worried by giving themselves a ‘koala cuddle’ by placing their hands on their heart and breathing out big imaginary bubbles while counting to five.
- Share Your Own Self-Regulation Tips
Talk to your child about how you cope in different situations and manage your own emotions. Children often mirror the behaviour and responses of their parents, so if you’re hot headed, you can’t expect your child to remain calm in the same situation. Also let them know that it’s OK to feel big feelings and that the emotions will ebb and flow.
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Reflect on how you respond to challenging situations and try to remain calm and collected, even if your child is having a meltdown or you’ve had a terrible day. We can’t always be successful at staying calm and if we reflect that with our children it helps them to understand this too. Reflection is key.
- Build an ‘Emotional Toolbox’
Work together to come up with a strategy of what they should do when they start to feel a certain way. For example, it could be that if they feel angry can they describe their ‘red beast’. How can they tame it? Is it to run or the spot, or squeeze a pillow? If they feel disappointed can they draw the colour they feel or talk with you about how to feel more satisfied? Will they get to go the park soon?
This will give them an ‘emotional toolbox’ of methods to use when they are overcome with strong feelings.
- Lie down and take deep breaths. For young children, place a soft toy on their tummy and ask them to make it rise to make sure they’re breathing from the belly and not their lungs.
- Pause, place one hand over their heart and close their eyes. Feel the ground below their feet and stay in this position for 30 seconds to help them feel grounded. This is an introduction to be mindful and the importance of staying in the moment.
- Visualise a positive outcome. This can be particularly useful if they’re feeling upset because they feel they can’t do something. Asking them to draw their current wish- how can you work towards it together? Encourage them to think about a play activity they will enjoy?
- Drink a glass of water. Our nervous system is more sensitive when we’re dehydrated, so this can help to calm a worried or stressed child.
Finally, be patient. Emotional self-regulation takes time and regular rehearsal for children to master. Continue to be understanding and assured that they will get there in the end.
For more information and advice from the Zoono Family Panel, an initiative that helps support the wellbeing of families, visit www.zoono.co.uk.
About the Author
Hannah Abrahams is a leading Educational and Child Psychologist on the Zoono Family Panel. A Child and Educational Psychologist of 15 years, and previously a primary school teacher, Hannah is registered with the British Psychological Society and the Health and Care Professionals Body.
As the child psychologist on the Zoono Family panel, Hannah offers advice to parents to help them access their ‘Emotional Toolbox’, to build their resilience and adaptability to change, and to help them become even stronger in supporting their children through the challenges still to come.