What is emotional regulation?
‘What is Self-Regulation?
The ability to monitor and manage emotions, thoughts, and behaviours.’
Committee for Children 2015
Emotional regulation refers to a child’s ability to manage their own feelings, thoughts and behaviour. Sophie Havighurst and Ann Harley developed the Tuning in to Kids program, which supports emotionally responsive parenting. They suggest that emotional regulation forms part of set of skills required to manage our own emotions and respond to other people’s. These are sometimes known as emotional competences or emotional intelligence. The skills include:
- understanding one’s own emotions and being able to communicate with others about how one feels
- understanding other people’s emotions and being able to identify and interact with others when one or both parties are emotional
- regulating one’s own emotions (including controlling, expressing and modulating emotion) in a culturally and situationally appropriate manner
- the ability to use emotion in one’s life in order to achieve one’s goals.
‘Emotional intelligence means being able to read your own and other’s emotions,
and being able to respond to the emotions of others in a cooperative, functional, and empathetic manner.’
Why is emotional regulation important?
Emotional regulation is essential to children’s day to day life because it affects their understanding of situations, how they respond, their behaviour and their enjoyment of life. Supporting children to understand and manage emotions also provides them with skills that they will use in adulthood. Havighurst and Harley state that emotional intelligence is important because:
- it allows you to have awareness and control over what you do
- it results in lower levels of stress, which are associated with better health
- enables more satisfying friendships and lasting intimate relationships
- you can sooth yourself, and are therefore able to calmly focus, concentrate and think when faced with a challenging situation and it makes you more resilient. This means change and stress are easier to deal with.
Parenting Counts also suggest that children who understand their feelings and who learn about their emotions:
- form stronger friendships with other children
- calm themselves down more quickly when they get upset
- do better in school
- handle their moods better and have fewer negative emotions
- get sick less often
A range of useful information sheets from Parenting Counts can be obtained for free here. This includes topics on Self-Regulation, Temperament, Emotion Coaching and Praise.
Does emotional regulation have to be taught or do children learn it naturally?
Florez (2011) suggests that mastering the skills required to regulate emotions is a major task for a child. They need support from adults to achieve this, ‘Just like newborn babies need help regulating basic needs like body temperature, heart rate and sleeping, they also need help regulating their emotions.’ Emotional regulation skills take time to learn. It begins from birth and continues into adulthood.
All children develop emotional skills differently. Kids Matter suggests that younger children might show higher level of emotional development, whereas older children might take longer to develop skills required to manage emotions. Cultural influences can also play a role in how children manage emotions:
‘Some families and cultures encourage children to express a range of emotions while other families encourage children not to display certain emotions, such as anger or pride. These differences also influence the ways children learn to regulate their emotions‘ (www.kidsmatter.edu.au).
A general guide for early emotional development is provided below by Kids Matter:
The first emotions that can be recognised in babies include joy, anger, sadness fear. Later, as children begin to develop a sense of self, more complex emotions like shyness, surprise, elation, embarrassment, shame, guilt, pride and empathy emerge. Primary school children are still learning to identify emotions, to understand why they happen and how to manage them appropriately. Very young children’s emotions are mainly made up of physical reactions (e.g. heart racing, butterflies in stomach) and behaviours. As they grow, children develop the ability to recognise feelings. (www.kidsmatter.edu.au)
Self-regulation is not related to intelligence. Factors that help shape how well a child can self-regulate include:
Age: Self-regulation develops as children grow.
Biology: Your child’s temperament and how he responds to stressful situations affect how and when he develops self-regulation.
Relationships: Your interaction with your child, including how you accommodate his temperament and respond to his needs, affect how he learns to self-regulate.
Cognition: Using language (especially naming emotions) helps develop self-regulation and sets the stage for the child’s future learning.
Parenting Counts, Self-Regulation
Florez reports that parents and carers are important role models because children learn how to regulate emotions by watching adults in their lives, ‘When children see parents and carers effectively regulate their own emotions and actions, it helps them to learn how to manage their own feelings and behaviours.’ Over time, children learn how to regulate their own emotions independently.
Children often express their emotions through their behaviour. Due to their age our stage of development, they may not know the words to express themselves verbally or may feel so overwhelmed by their emotions that they need help from an adult to manage them. The Circle of Security parenting program highlights the importance of taking time to consider the emotional need behind children’s behaviour. For example, rather than ‘looking for attention’ a child might in fact be ‘looking for emotional connection’ with a parent or carer.
The Australian Childhood Foundation suggest that there may be times when additional issues impact on children and their families, such as trauma. Trauma is ‘the emotional, psychological and physiological residue left over from heightened stress that accompanies experiences of threat, violence, and life-challenging events’ (2010, p.12). Complex trauma results from multiple incidents, such as domestic abuse. It can affect the way children’s brains develop and also has a specific impact on emotional regulation. For example, children might experience difficulty in understanding emotions, learning words for emotions and expressing emotions. They might find it difficult to read social cues.
How are emotional regulation and school readiness linked?
Blair et al (2015) report that self-regulation skills includes attributes which promote learning and adjustment to school. These include: ‘Focusing and maintaining attention, regulating emotion and stress response physiology, reflecting on information and experience, and engaging in sustained positive social interactions with teachers and peers.’ The Committee for Children (2015, p.1-2) report that emotional regulation:
- helps children focus their attention on learning when they might be distracted by others, upset by a problem, or excited about an upcoming event
- lays the groundwork for school achievement, during early childhood and beyond these years and plays an important role in building social-emotional competence—another essential ingredient for a successful transition to school
How can parents help their children learn emotional regulation?
There a number of ways parents can help their children to regulate emotions. Parenting Counts suggests:
- provide structure and predictability
- model self-control and self-regulation in your words and actions when you are frustrated, upset, or excited
- seek help. If your child is struggling with managing her emotions or behaviour, early identification and intervention can support both you and your child in developing these important skills
What Parents Can Do
- be a role model
- think about how you handle your own emotions
- have empathy for your child. For example, if your child is feeling sad about breaking a favourite toy, tell her how you manage sadness when you break something. Try saying “I understand why you are sad about breaking your new toy. When I broke my new sunglasses, I was sad and wasn’t sure how I would be able to enjoy being outside without them.”
- take your child’s emotions seriously
- be willing to understand your child’s perspective
Parenting Counts. Information for Parents: Emotion Coaching