Emotion regulation difficulties

November 09, 2016

What is emotion regulation?

Emotion regulation is the ability to regulate normal and common human emotions such as fear, sadness and anger. Healthy emotion regulation is when a child or adult can recognise they are feeling a certain way, and then act in an adaptive and functional way. For example, a child who has the ability to recognise their emotions will acknowledge the fact that they are sad that they have to go to school, but will figure out ways to make it easier so that they feel more confident to go. Emotion dysregulation occurs when a child has trouble regulating his/ her feeling and then acts in a way that is maladaptive. That is, if a child is sad about going to school they might cry, scream and even yell -leaving a parent confused and hopeless. Emotion regulation is a skill that can be easily learned so do not fear!

How do children develop the skill of emotion regulation?

Children are born as a blank slate. It is through their life experiences and their environment that they build confidence, self-esteem, and the ability to regulate their emotions in a healthy and adaptive way. Children do not know how to regulate their emotions, they need their parents to teach them to regulate their emotions. When a baby cries its parent helps soothe him/ her so that they can feel comfort and security. However, as a child grows up we expect them to have their emotions in check and parents tend to get frustrated when their child’s emotions get out of control. This often prompts parents to put a stop to the emotion/ behaviour – for example : stop crying!, stop moaning! Stop tantruming! What children really need is a parent to help them regulate their emotions, and instead of working against your childs feelings you need to try work with your childs feelings.

So how can I help a child regulate their emotions?

  • The first step is to put yourself in your childs shoes. How do you think you would feel if you were in your child’s situation? How did you feel in this situation when you were a child?
  • Once you realise how your child is feeling, try and label that feeling for them. For example if your child is having trouble going to school, you could say “Wow you must be feeling really sad and scared”.
  • Once you have labelled that emotion for your child try find out the reason why they are feeling that emotion. For example; your child might be sad as they are being bullied, or because the school work is too hard. Create a space so that your child can tell you the reasons why they are feeling a certain way. If your child cannot tell you then perhaps you can guess the reasons why.
  • Once your child has told you why they are feeling a certain way, it is important to validate and empathise with that emotion. For example, if your child is sad to go to school because they might be getting bullied you could say “I cant imagine how bad that must feel”. Validating and empathising is the most powerful way your child can feel heard.
  • The final step is to help your child problem solve. Emotion regulation happens when your child can come up with a solution to make them feel better. For example; it may be that if your child takes their phone with them to school they might feel safer at school, it also may be that if they speak to the teacher that they will also feel safer. Helping your child problem solve helps empower them to come up with solutions to difficult situations which drive a certain emotion.


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