Tips for Building Better Emotional Regulation
Emotional regulation is the ability to control emotions, impulses, and inappropriate behavior. While for many kids, these skills develop with growth and time, many others need strategies and support to learn them.
Below, we’ll discuss three specific approaches to helping our kids build better self-regulation and manage behaviors by: finding ways to calm themselves when they get upset; learning to deal with feelings of frustration without losing their cool; and looking for ways to problem-solve when confronted with an upsetting situation. In closing, Dr. Matthew Biel, chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical Center, gives us his lowdown on how to talk our kids through it.
1) Scaffolding: Isolate the Skill Needed and Practice
As parents, we tend to avoid the situations that we know will trigger our children’s behaviors — for good reason — but according to clinicians interviewed by the Child Mind Institute in an article titled "How Can We Help Kids With Self-Regulation?," we can coach them through these situations by providing them with the tools to develop the appropriate emotionally regulated responses. Using a process known as “scaffolding,” parents can encourage the desired behavior that is wanted until the child is able to handle it on their own.
For instance, if getting off video games is difficult, “scaffolding” could involve transitioning away from playing the game. Parents can start by having their child play a less-preferred game at first for a short period of time (two to three minutes) so it's not as difficult to stop the first few times. Children can earn points for a preferred activity or item each time they do it, and build up the minutes (and preferred games) from there.
Start with doable smaller tasks and build up
According to clinical psychologist Matthew Rouse, PhD, consistency and beginning with smaller tasks can help both parents and children feel successful. Break down the task, transition, or activity that causes the child to become dysregulated into smaller steps to make it more attainable and build confidence.
Rouse uses brushing teeth as an example: a parent can start by having the child only put the toothpaste on the brush and give positive input and rewards when the child follows through. Once the child has practiced a few times, add the next step.
Take a practice run
Another way to scaffold is by doing “dry runs.” If going to a store or doctor's office causes your child to have behaviors, first practice with short visits (when a parent does not need to actually shop or the child does not have an actual appointment). Praise and reward your child; the next time, maybe it's walking the aisle while keeping hands to themselves and or sitting in the waiting room of the doctor/dentist.
Give rewards for small successes
Dr. Rouse reminds us to motivate and encourage our children to take these small steps by praising them with positive verbal feedback and/or rewarding them with points earned toward preferred activities and/or items.
2) Use Reflective Feedback vs. an Emotional Response
Scott Bezsylko, another expert interviewed by Child Mind and the executive director of the Winston Preparatory School for children with learning differences, encourages parents to resist responding emotionally to a child’s outburst, but instead to try and respond calmly. First, help them acknowledge “what went wrong, and why, and how they can fix it next time.”
He also suggests making space for children to self-reflect. “We need to slow down and model self-reflection and self-awareness and self-regulation for our kids,” he says, “but it’s also helpful and good for us, too.” Mindfulness and mediation can also be positive building blocks to help children build emotional regulation skills.