Teach Kids Emotional Regulation by Modeling It Yourself

co-regulation discipline emotional regulation empathy modeling spicy Nov 12, 2023
 

As parents, we spend so much time protecting our children physically. We teach them to cross the street safely, not play with fire, and avoid other tangible dangers. But what about their emotional safety and wellbeing? 

Emotional regulation is a skill children desperately need, yet it's often overlooked.

When our kids have big emotions like anger, sadness, or fear, our natural reaction is often to scold them. "Knock it off!" we might yell, or threaten to take away privileges.

This only makes them feel ashamed and rejected. Punishing their big feelings doesn't actually teach them how to process and regulate their emotions.

Kids need to learn by example - and that example must come from us, as their parents!

Modeling emotional regulation for our children is hands-down the most effective way to help them develop this crucial life skill (that many adults don't even possess).

By demonstrating how we calm our own bodies and feelings, narrating the process aloud, and guiding kids with empathy, we provide the template they need to develop self-regulation.

It's not easy, especially when we feel triggered ourselves (it's even harder when we have a strong-willed, difficult, challenging or SPICY child! 🌶️)

But with practice, our own regulation will become automatic, providing the safety net our children need to master this skill themselves.

Kids Can't Regulate Emotions Without Our Help

It might be self-evident if we think about it, but our kids' brains aren't fully developed 🧠 Expecting them to self-regulate is unrealistic.

In fact, the prefrontal cortex that controls impulses doesn't fully develop in adults until age 25!! So, yes, kids know right and wrong, but they simply can't rein themselves in when emotions flare up.

They need to learn these skills by observing and imitating adults (us!).

If we yell, shame, or punish when WE are dysregulated, our children see this as normal behavior. Instead, we can take control and model the regulation we want our kids to develop.

The next time there's a flare-up - it might be over screen time, going to bed or homework, for example - respond with empathy and curiosity, not anger.

Say, "I know you're a good kid. There must be something big going on for you to do that. How can I can help?"

Guide them through cleaning up any mess they've made. Apologize and make amends together.  

Narrate your own emotional regulation out loud.

Say, "My body is getting angry. I need to take some deep breaths and calm down before we talk."

Put a hand on your belly, breathe slowly, and describe each step. Your child sees how you actively calm yourself.

Regulation is contagious. Your calm, empathetic presence helps your child's nervous system feel safe to learn new skills. With patience and compassion, you can co-regulate and help them develop their own emotional regulation abilities.

Punishing Dysregulation Doesn't Teach Regulation

Sending kids to their room when they're upset doesn't teach emotional skills.

Taking away privileges for showing big emotions doesn't address their root cause.

Kids need co-regulation from caregivers to learn self-regulation. When children 'act out', our instinct is often to punish. But using isolation or taking away privileges doesn't build self-regulation skills in children.

They can't process their big feels when left alone.

Punishment makes them feel emotionally unsafe. In this state, they simply cannot learn any 'lessons' we're trying to teach them.

Instead of scolding, discipline and isolation, we can start an empathetic conversation.

Say, "You seem really upset. I'm here to help, not punish you. Let's figure this out together."

Guide them through repairing harm. Model apologizing and problem solving.

As caregivers, we need to provide the regulation that kids can't yet manage alone.

By co-regulating, we share our capacity for emotional control (based on our years of lived experience and abundance of resources - which our kids don't have!).

Remember - emotional regulation is learned via example, not punishment or 'discipline'.

Model Emotional Regulation Through Your Own Behavior

When we yell, shame, or punish, children learn these are appropriate responses to big feelings. As an alternative, we can model the calm, empathetic behavior we want them to develop.

 How?

Start by narrating your own emotional regulation process out loud.

Say, "I'm feeling really frustrated. I need to take some deep breaths to calm down before we discuss this."

Demonstrate techniques like belly breathing, mantras, and taking a pause.

Explain how you use these skills to soothe yourself. By doing this, our children see emotional regulation in action, and they learn new tools for managing their feelings.

Regulation is contagious! When you co-regulate with your child, they will adopt your emotional intelligence over time.

Guide Kids Through Big Emotions with Empathy

Their big feelings are developmentally appropriate given their still-developing brains. When we extend empathy and compassion, they feel safe to show and process their emotions.

Help them label their feelings in the moment.

Say, "You seem really angry. Let's take some deep breaths together."

Validate their experience while co-regulating. With support, their nervous system can calm down and help them stay open to learning.

Once they calm down they can reflect on what happened.

Did they overreact? Hurt someone? Break something valuable? Natural consequences like apologies and reparative conversations are the most effective teachers.

Save further discussion for a later time, when everyone's emotions have settled. Big feelings cloud their ability to process corrections and trigger our own 'stuff', which we can unconsciously project onto our kids.

Remember - if we try to deliver a 'lesson' in the heat of the moment, they'll likely feel shamed and tune it out.

Try this at home...

The next time you feel triggered by your child's behavior, try narrating your own emotional regulation process aloud.

Say something like "Mommy is feeling really frustrated right now. I need to take three deep breaths to calm down before discussing this."

Demonstrating regulation skills in real-time is the most powerful way to model them for your child.

With consistent practice, these techniques will become second-nature for both of you.

FAQ

How can I teach my child emotional regulation?

The most effective way is to model regulation skills yourself. Narrate your process aloud: "I'm feeling upset so I'm going to breathe slowly." Help them label feelings. Guide them to self-soothe. With co-regulation, they'll learn from your example.

What's the best way to respond when my child is very upset? 

With empathy, not anger.

Say "You seem really sad. Let's breathe together."

Validate their feelings. Once calm, get curious and discuss what happened. What was going on for them?

And avoid punishment. This most often leads them into a fight / flight response due to feelings of emotional unsafety.

How do I know if my child needs help with emotional regulation?

If your child has frequent emotional outbursts, anger issues, or meltdowns (aka: they're strong-willed and SPICY!), they likely need help learning regulation skills.

Big feelings are developmentally normal, so have compassion. Caregivers must provide co-regulation until the child's brain matures enough to self-regulate.

Why is modeling important for teaching emotional regulation?

Children learn skills by observing and imitating adults. If we yell or shame when upset, they learn this is normal.

Staying calm and narrating our own emotional regulation process shows them how to actively soothe big feelings. Your emotional intelligence will rub off through consistent modeling.

What are examples of modeling emotional regulation?

1. Take deep breaths when frustrated and say "I'm feeling upset so I'm breathing slowly to calm down."

2. Use mantras like "This too shall pass."

3. Do yoga or meditate when anxious.

4. Explain out loud to your children how these tools help you regulate emotions. When they see your techniques in action they can copy them.