Regulation is a term that has become popular in recent times, especially in relation to child development. Self-regulation or emotional-regulation are terms used to describe a skill that many wish children to possess. But, what is it and what does it actually mean to self-regulate one’s emotions?
Emotional-regulation can be understood as the ability of a child to cope with heightened levels of both positive and negative emotions. A child copes with emotions by learning to tolerate and control intense emotions, and subsequently soothing difficult emotions and enhancing positive ones in an appropriate way.
Through learning to tolerate and manage the wide spectrum of emotions that humans experience, children learn to understand and communicate more deeply around events in their lives. It also plays a critical role in how well a child is able to build up appropriate social interactions and connections with their peers. A child who experiences difficulties with regulation may find themselves expressing inappropriate levels of aggression, excitement, fear or withdrawal that alienate other children and adults.
You may be thinking, “This is great, but how do I actually help my child regulate?”. The answer is- you are already doing it!
By design of nature, as a parent you become your child’s first experience of and guide towards emotional regulation in your every day actions. When your baby cries, and you hold them close, rocking them into a state of comfort, what you are really doing is helping them reduce the intensity of a difficult emotion and return to calmness. When you play hide and seek with your toddler and see the joy that emerges, you are providing them with an experience of happiness with another person. When you have a heart to heart conversation with your teenager about their day, you are providing them with an opportunity to make sense of their day and acknowledge their feelings.
If there is one thing that I would like to emphasise is that the “teaching” takes place in the relationship between you and your child. The way parent and child connect IS the emotional regulation, that becomes internalised over the course of your child’s development. This might feel scary, but really there is freedom in this, because there is always an opportunity to try again and learn together!
At any point, both adult and child can become dysregulated. That is part of the human experience and perfectly ok! Nobody is at fault and you are not a bad parent for it, and there is nothing wrong with your child- however these are times to reconnect with the relationship to provide an opportunity for regulation once again. Here are some things to help the process:
- Allow your child to experience the emotion: Many times, because of our own histories, we judge certain emotions as bad or unacceptable (anger, excitement, sadness). When we observe these emotions in our children, it is not uncommon to try to shut them down or push them away because of our own discomfort. Challenge yourself to take a breath and allow your child (and yourself) to feel.
- Help your child down-regulate: When the feeling is still in an intense state, talking may not be helpful- your child may not be in a state to understand, and you may not be in a state to communicate either. Nonverbal actions may be more beneficial here- move with them to a room where they feel comfortable, dim the lighting, quieten the space around the room, cover with a soft blanket and encourage deep breathing if possible. This sensory input can help to reduce the intensity of the emotion.
- Allow the feeling of calm to settle: Once your child has calmed down and the emotion has become intense, allow a period of time for both you and your child to take comfort in each other during this time at a level that feels comfortable. This may look like cuddling or sitting on your lap, sitting next to each other in silence or simply lying together in bed.
- Raise awareness of the emotion: Once you child is settled and able to engage, you may want to label the feeling for them (if they are young) or allow them to share their perspective (if older). Bringing the emotion to attention and normalising this experience helps your child to realise that what they felt is not the end of the world- what they felt is ok and they can be resilient. The act of talking itself is a form of regulation.
There is no golden secret to helping your child build up self-regulation skills and as the parent, you are not expected to be the expert. Even more, your child is not expected to be perfect, whatever that might mean. Learning to engage with emotions is a lifelong task that takes place within relationships- none more special than between parent and child. Take meaning form the moments that are are, and enjoy the moments that you can.
With joy and light,