Parents, teachers, and other caregivers have an important role in teaching children self-regulation
Babies cry, toddlers have tantrums. At some point, parents expect their kids to start managing their feelings without epic meltdowns.
Learning to regulate emotions, though, is a complex process. “Emotion regulation calls on so many skills, including attention, planning, cognitive development, and language development,” said Pamela Cole, PhD, a psychologist at Penn State University who studies emotion regulation in early childhood.
Children develop those skills at different times, psychologists say. Their ability to manage negative feelings depends on genetics, their natural temperament, the environment they grow up in, and outside factors like how tired or hungry they are. But parents, teachers, and other caregivers all play a critical role in helping children learn to manage their feelings.
Children who manage their emotions well are more likely to do well in school and get along with others. Here are science-tested strategies parents and caretakers can use to teach kids these important skills:
- Start early: Infants who are quick to react and hard to sooth are more likely to have trouble managing emotions when they get older, said John Lochman, PhD, ABPP, a psychologist at the University of Alabama who studies programs to prevent aggression in high-risk children. But all kids benefit from teaching about feelings. Caregivers can start talking about feelings when their children are still babies. Point out when book or movie characters feel sad, happy, angry, or worried.
- Connect: Studies show that children who have a secure, trusting relationship with their parents or caregivers have better emotion regulation as toddlers than those whose needs aren’t met by their caregivers. Being consistent and comforting will help you develop a secure attachment with your child.
- Talk and teach: Teach your children to recognize and name their emotions. Don’t bother trying to have the conversation while they’re upset, however. “When things are calm, find opportunities to talk about feelings and strategies for managing them,” Cole said. “It won’t all sink in during one conversation, but you can lay the groundwork.”
- Model good behavior: Have you heard the old saying ‘Do as I say, not as I do’? “Research shows that’s ridiculous,” said Alan Kazdin, PhD, a psychologist at Yale University and director of the Yale Parenting Center who studies childrearing strategies to reduce behavioral problems. Children learn by modeling what their parents are doing, not saying.
- Stay calm: Modeling good behavior is easier said than done—especially when your preschooler is throwing the world’s biggest tantrum. If you’re about to lose your cool, take a minute to breathe and calm down before you address the situation. “Walk into the other room and come back once you’re calmer,” said Kazdin, who drew from decades of research to design a free online training for parents. “You’re not avoiding the situation, but you can avoid making an impulsive reaction.”
- Plan options: When your child is calm, talk about some ways they can handle a tricky situation. Imagine they pushed a classmate who had a toy they wanted to play with. When things are calm, talk about different choices they could make next time: They could tell the teacher, ask the classmate to take turns, or find something else to play with. This process can help your child develop problem-solving skills.
- Act it out: Once you talk about possible options, it’s time to practice. “Role play and rehearse,” Kazdin said. Take turns pretending to be your child and their classmate. With practice, kids will begin to apply those new skills in the real world.
- Punish less, praise more: It’s tempting to give consequences for bad behavior. But strict punishment makes behavior worse, not better. “When parenting is harsh, children who have trouble managing their emotions tend to react by becoming more aggressive,” Lochman said. “The research shows that you should have four or five positive interactions for each negative reprimand.” In other words, caregivers should spend a lot of time focusing on positive attention, praise, and rewards for good behavior. Kazdin recommends caregivers think about “positive opposites” for behaviors they want to correct. If your child always screams when it’s time to leave the playground, don’t punish them for the outburst. Instead, offer lots of praise and maybe a small reward when they leave without a tantrum. “Instead of punishing a child for an unwanted behavior, praise the behavior you’d like to see in its place,” Kazdin said.
- Be a team: For kids who are struggling to learn emotion regulation, consistency is key. “It’s really important for parents, grandparents, teachers, and other caregivers to work together to address a child’s self-regulation problems,” Lochman said. “Sit down to chat and plan a coordinated approach to handling the child’s behaviors.”
- Check your expectations: Don’t expect your child to behave perfectly, especially if they’re genuinely scared or stressed, Cole said. When they’re afraid or anxious (like getting vaccinated or starting school for the first time) they might not be able to access the self-regulation skills they use in more low-stakes situations. “In a highly stressful situation, children need more adult support,” she said.
- Take the long view: Most children learn to manage big feelings by the time they’re in elementary school. But that doesn’t mean their emotional development is finished. Executive functions—skills like planning, organizing, problem solving, and controlling impulses—continue to develop into young adulthood. When you feel frustrated by your child’s behavior, remember that emotion regulation takes time.
If your child is struggling with emotion regulation, psychologists or other behavioral health professionals can help. Cole also suggests parents reach out to teachers or school counselors for input and resources.
“When the problems are interfering with school, health, family life, or other aspects of life, it’s helpful to ask for some guidance,” she said.
Through it all, she recommends caregivers continue to take steps to build a strong relationship with their children. Whether they’re still in diapers or getting ready to start school, it’s never too early—or too late—to strengthen your connection.
“It’s important to develop a strong, positive relationship with your child,” Cole said. “Kids learn from people they trust.”