I have to admit; I’m fascinated by a toddler tantrum. I can understand why they are so distressing to parents but it is an incredible thing to watch. It doesn’t seem possible that one so small could muster up that much energy and throw it out like a force field around themselves. I admire the commitment of the act. The brain’s base instincts bursting forth and overtaking everything else. It makes me wonder about the effort we must expend as adults in keeping all that emotion under control because to some degree it is still in there somewhere.
We expect emotional outbursts from very young children, but by the time they are in their tweens and teens we expect them to be controlled and self managing. It is a big ask…and unrealistic. Emotional maturity takes a long time. The brain only reaches adult state in a person’s early twenties. There are times in this development where the experience of emotion is multiplied by the impact of hormones. When these chemicals first flood the brain at around age two and then again during puberty, all hell can break loose.
We also tend to underestimate how often a child has to self regulate over the course of a day. We tend not to notice because we are so good at it and we forget what it was like to not have those skills down pat. Think about it…
- Wake up and work up the enthusiasm for school
- Sibling interactions that may be competitive and raw
- Boredom on the bus
- Walk past a student who has upset you the day before
- Get called on by the teacher when you don’t know the answer
- Excitement at getting a text from a girl/boy you like
- Do poorly on a test
- Disappointment at not making the netball team
- Frustration about a new Math concept
- Last period on a Friday over excitement
And on and on and on…
Transitions are particularly challenging and school is all about transitions. Every hour high school students stand up, change rooms, adapt to the expectations of a new teacher, tackle completely different content and make social adjustments based on who is in the class. It’s exhausting. It is little wonder kids often feel grumpy and spent after school. Remember, they are also in uniforms; often not comfortable and certainly not their choice. Truth be told, I know I’d be a more relaxed soul if I could come to school in sand shoes and tracky pants. Kids are the same.
What are the skills of emotional regulation?
According to Alice Boyes PhD there are ten skills of emotional self regulation that we need to master by the time we are adults.
- Identifying which specific emotions you’re feeling.
- Identifying which specific emotions someone else is feeling.
- The ability to start and persist with pursuing goals even when you feel anxious.
- The ability to tolerate awkwardness.
- The ability to have intimate conversations rather than stonewall, avoid, or flee.
- The ability not to crumble when someone is pressuring you.
- The ability to soothe your own emotions.
- The ability to soothe other people’s emotions.
- The ability to not go over the top with positive emotion.
- The ability to delay gratification.
I would argue that an understanding of the additional factors that negatively impact our emotional regulation is also very important. Factors such as: Lack of sleep, lack of exercise, hunger, drug use and alcohol use.
A problem we are beginning to recognise is that recent parenting and educational practices are getting in the way of the development of sound emotional regulation. This is happening in two main ways:
- Over the past 30 years we have become increasingly worried about children’s confidence and self-esteem. These are valid concerns but they have led to a situation where we now try to remove failure and conflict from our children’s lives. We have sports competitions where we aren’t allowed to have winners and losers, so we don’t keep score. We try to engineer friendships for our kids and sort out their conflicts for them. It could be argued that perhaps we recall our own emotional dysregulation and we may think we can save our children from those feelings.
- On the flip side, some parents believe in ‘tough love’. The ‘harden up princess’, ‘You’re okay’ approach. The problem with that is emotional regulation relies on a connection with parents. Parents need to be directly talking to kids about what emotions are, what purpose they serve and how to regulate them. A lot of this is done via role modelling and creating a space where it is safe to talk about feelings; both your own and your child’s.
When a child doesn’t learn appropriate self regulation they can take on maladaptive strategies instead. These are harmful behaviours that in one way or other either numb the experience of emotion, channel it into another form of manageable pain or avoid feeling altogether. Some of the most common maladaptive behaviours are:
- Avoidance of emotion
- ‘Acting out’
- Excessive social media use
- Self harm (Often described as a way of ‘feeling something’)
- Alcohol and drug use
- Excessive gaming (It provides a consistent, safe, unemotional world)
- Social media abuse
- Eating disorders linked to control
So, what can adults do to help children develop their emotional regulation?
- Create emotionally expressive environments at home and school. These are spaces and places for kids where they feel free to say how they feel without fear of being ‘shut down’. There is a limit on behaviour but there is not a limit on emotion.
- Develop your empathy response and teach that to children. Kids need to feel heard. You don’t have to fix anything, just listen to understand.
- Create a strong sense of belonging. Ritual and routine can help here. This sense of belonging makes it safe to express emotion and to learn how to regulate safely.
- Model your own emotional regulation. Talk about emotions you are experiencing and the strategies you are using to regulate those emotions.
- Overtly teach strategies for self regulation:
- Take a break
- Talk with a good listener
- Try this resource for more strategies Tools for Emotional Health
- Talk to kids about emotional regulation and strategies when they are calm, not in the middle of a melt down.
- Teach kids that positive emotions need to be regulated, not just negative ones. When kids talk over others or act ‘over the top’ and silly because they are excited they put people off.
- Try not to be dictated to by our culture’s gender bias. Unfortunately, males and females get quite different feedback to emotions. Boys are expected to suppress their emotions much more than girls. The prevailing version of masculinity says that boys shouldn’t show extreme upset or extreme joy. Those displays are reserved for femininity. It is a ridiculous construct that has dire consequences for our young men. Too many find it impossible to express their sense of isolation, depression and anxiety. Hence suicide is the biggest killer of men under 30 in Australia. Equally as damaging is the perception that female expressions of emotion are melodramatic and not to be taken too seriously. Let’s avoid the dismissive, ‘that’s just girls’.
Finally…remind children that crying is a valid form of emotional regulation. Remember yourself that it’s not necessary to stop someone crying. It won’t make them feel better. Just be with it. Tears are not a sign of weakness or of lack of competence. Crying releases emotional tension and can flag distress. Just because someone is emotional does not mean that what they are saying or thinking is not rational.
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Linda Stade has worked in various teaching and management roles in education for twenty-five years. She has worked in government and private schools, country and city, single sex and co-ed. Currently she is the Research Officer at Santa Maria College, Western Australia. She has a Facebook page here
Top 10 Ways to Regulate Emotions
Distress Tolerance Lessons
ReachOut is an Australian website that has lots of useful resources for teens (and a really good section for teachers too)
Some useful apps that are available on both Apple App Store and Google Play store:
Smiling Mind (www.smilingmind.com.au)
10 Essential Emotional Regulation Skills for Adults
Santa Maria College Psychologist Jane Carmignani. All round complete legend!