Children need to be able to learn how to behave in emotionally-charged situations. When a particular feeling is experienced, children may react in many different ways.
Simple Kids describes children with good emotion regulation skills and children with not so healthy emotion regulation skills. (The following descriptions are authored by Simple Kids.)
Children with good emotional regulation skills:
- Are able to experience, express and manage a range of emotions
- Adjust well to transitions and new situations
- Engage in appropriate behaviors in response to emotional situations
- Show a high tolerance for frustration
Children with poor emotional regulation skills:
- May exhibit a limited range of emotions
- Have difficulties coping with stressful experiences
- May engage in outbursts of negative emotions
- May show aggressive or ego-centric behaviors (depending on their age)
- Are less socially competent, in general
- Are often less successful in school — they show difficulties learning, and are less productive in the classroom.
When you have a clearer picture of what areas your child has strength in regards to their emotion regulation skills (such as whether they are able to stop themselves from having outbursts as a result of feeling angry or whether they are able to foster lots of friendships), then you can also pick out areas your child can still grow in. For instance, your child may be able to remain calm when angry by walking away and being alone but it is important to remember that the child should be able to feel like it is okay to have his feelings and express them but to do so in healthy ways.
AHA Parenting provides these tips:
Remember that all feelings are allowed. Only actions need to be limited. Why does this matter? Because when kids “stuff” their emotions, those feelings are no longer under conscious control. Then they pop out unregulated, and the child socks someone. If the emotions are allowed, the child can learn to put them into words instead of hitting.
Set limits. Allowing feelings does not mean we allow destructive actions. Kids should never be allowed to hit others, including their parents. When they do, they are always asking for us to set limits and help them contain their anger. Say “You can be as mad as you want but you cannot hit. I see how mad you are, and I will keep us all safe.”
Some children really need to struggle against something when they’re angry. It’s fine to let them struggle against your holding arms, if that’s what they want, but take off your glasses, and don’t let yourself get hurt.
Similarly, don’t let kids break things in their fury. That just adds to their guilt and sense that they’re a bad person. Your job is to serve as a safe “container” and “witness” while you listen to your child’s upsets.
Stay calm. Yelling at an angry child reinforces what she’s already feeling, which is that she is in danger. (You may not see why she would think she’s in danger when she just socked her little brother, but a child who is lashing out is a child in the grip of deep fear.) So your anger will only make the storm worse. Your job is to restore calm, because kids can only learn and understand how to “do better” when they’re calm.
If you are in the habit of yelling at your kids, know that you are modeling behavior that your child will certainly copy.
Kids need to learn from you that anger and other upsetting feelings are not so scary as they seem — after all, Mom isn’t scared of them. Your presence helps them feel safe, which helps them develop the neural pathways in the brain that shut off the “fight or flight” response and allow the frontal cortex, the “reasoning brain,” to take over. That’s how kids learn to soothe themselves.
Give your child ways to manage his angry impulses in the moment. Most kids resist punching the pillows on the couch, which feels artificial to them, but many love having a punching bag to beat up. You can teach your child to stomp his feet when he’s mad. With a child who is a bit older, you can suggest that she draw or write on paper what she is angry about, and then fiercely rip it into tiny pieces. Teach her to use her “PAUSE” button by breathing in for four counts through her nose, and then out for eight through her mouth. Grab two squishy balls; hand her one, and demonstrate working out annoyance on the squishy ball.
When your child is calm, make a list with her of constructive ways to handle emotion, and post it on the refrigerator. Let her do the writing, or add pictures, so she feels some ownership of the list. But also model using it yourself when you’re mad: “I’m getting annoyed, so I’m checking our MAD list. Oh, I think I’ll put on some music and dance out my frustration!”
Help your child be aware of her “warning signs.” Once kids are in the full flush of adrenaline and the other “fight or flight” neurotransmitters, they think it’s an emergency, and they’re fighting for their lives. At that point, managing the angry impulses is almost impossible, and all we can offer kids is a safe haven while the storm sweeps through them. But if you can help your child notice when she’s getting annoyed and learn to calm herself, she’ll have many fewer tantrums. When she’s little, you’ll have to know her cues and take preventive action — offering some snuggle time, or getting her out of the grocery store. As she gets older, you can point out to her “Sweetie, you’re getting upset. We can make this better. Let’s all calm down and figure this out together.”