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  • Emily Burnham

Emotional Regulation in Children

Updated: May 18

From the moment we are born, we rely on someone else to help us manage our emotions. How many of you are guilty of making faces at babies to see if they will copy you? Smiling to elicit a smile or fake crying to make a baby upset? Maybe you’ve noticed how sometimes your kids will look to you after they fall down. If you smile and let them know it’s okay, then they carry on like everything is fine, but if you look concerned or worried, they immediately break into tears.

Parents and caregivers are a child’s number one resource in understanding, managing, and regulating their emotions. As a child matures, they slowly become emotionally independent so that by adulthood, they can rely on themselves to navigate their emotions. They recognize that their feelings are their own, not dependent on another person’s emotions. However, this is a skill that is not readily taught to emerging adults, and many adults still emotionally function with child-like codependency. When their partner or best friend is unhappy, they are unhappy. While it is healthy to have empathy and compassion, emotional codependence is very different. Instead of coming from a place of understanding and relating to another’s pain, it leaves the message that you are reliant on another’s well-being for your own well-being. Unless you are okay, then I am not okay. This puts a lot of pressure on the other person, because now they are not only in charge of their own emotions, but they’re responsible for your emotions too!

As an adult, you have the capacity and responsibility to learn how to control and regulate your own emotions. What a powerful message! Even if you are having a bad day, I can remain calm and safe for you to come talk to when you’re ready. You don’t need to feel guilty about “ruining” my day just because your day is ruined. It’s okay! Take your time and space, know that you’re still loved and wanted, and we’ll work through it without both becoming escalated and unhappy! However, a child does not yet have this capability, and they are emotionally dependent on their caretaker, so it’s a long journey of being present and accessible to help regulate their emotions as they slowly learn how to do so on their own.  

As an adult, you may have felt anger or sadness thousands of times, but a child can be experiencing it for the very first time. They have no context or experience to help them know what is happening within their body. As their caregiver, it’s vital to help normalize all emotions and help them identify what they are feeling, where they are feeling it at, and why they might be feeling that way… WHILE remaining regulated yourself. This is crucial to help a child begin to gain awareness and understanding of what is going on in their mind and body.

The next important step for parents is to model coping skills that their children can use when they are flooded with big emotions so that they can begin practicing how to self-regulate. The age at which children are developmentally able to apply them will vary, but many children can begin practicing these skills at seven-years-old. Examples of coping skills include deep breathing, body scans, and taking breaks (a positive way to say “time-out”). As children grow older, their ability to understand their own emotions and apply coping skills will expand, but this process is not linear. They may seem to regress at times as they experience harder challenges that test them even further. Parents need to be strongly regulated and emotionally independent so that their child’s meltdowns do not negatively impact their own emotions, allowing them to remain a safe, calm place for their kids to seek assurance and comfort from. This stance also allows parents to serve as role models for their kids on how to handle emotions. But this requires a lot of patience, repetition, and energy from parents. That’s why you’ll hear me say countless times, “Parenting is the toughest job in the world.” It will require you to stretch and grow beyond your comfort zone physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Remember, the best resource your child has to regulate their emotions is YOU.

Practice regulating your own emotions so that you are prepared to co-regulate emotions with your children. Practice breathing and other relaxation techniques so you can sit down with your child and work on them together. There is not one technique that is guaranteed to work, and there may be multiple ways to respond that work well. Explore many different ones and note which ones seem to resonate with your child. Even though there are countless ways you can respond to a dysregulated child, the key is to act from a calm and regulated state of mind, not react to their meltdown from your own dysregulated state of emotions.

About the Author:

Emily Burnham is a Marriage and Family Therapist who enjoys working with couples and families at CLEAR Counseling. In her spare time, Emily loves to stay busy with learning new languages, writing stories, and creating videos for her YouTube channel: Elevate With Emily.

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