April 7, 2014

Regulating Emotions – a Life Skill our kids need

Regulating emotions is a dry expression used by psychological professionals to describe being able to calm down and not freak out for too long when you’re upset. It’s the difference between a five minute cry over a boo-boo (physical or emotional) and an hour-long drama.

Nobody likes the latter. When grownups do it, it’s appalling and scary. When kids do it they lose friends and alienate teachers and other professionals. And it drives parents crazy.

So we have every reason in the world to teach our kids self regulation. How to? Kids learn to regulate their emotions when we teach, encourage and help them to say their feelings and then move on. But how to navigate the rock-strewn shoals between enough emoting and too much of it? We all know that too many kids today have had such a powerful microscope focused on their every move – and how they feel about it – that they can’t have a little cry and move on. Because they’ve been taught to hyper-focus on every boo-boo – large and small, physical and emotional. It’s been hard for our generation of parents to get the “moving on” part.

It’s also been hard for us to get the boundary part. I get so bound up with my kids’ well-being that sometimes I forget it’s their life, not mine. When those boundaries become invisible to me, I hyper-focus on their difficulties, which influences and teaches them to do the same. We know our generation of parents does this for three reasons: Partly in reaction to our parents, who perhaps under-focused on our issues, partly because of the pernicious myth of the possibility of perfection in parenting, and partly because we are parenting in an anxious age which seems more fraught with dangers.

But knowing all that is no reason to abandon the project of teaching kids to talk about their feelings. Not doing so causes feelings to bottle up and occasionally (and inappropriately) leak or explode. So how to teach kids to emote but not drown in their feelings?

Lesson one is for kids to experience their feelings being listened to. We all know this: When you’re upset, being heard calms you down. When you know you’ll be heard, you respond to future upsets less dramatically, you catastrophize less. You calm down faster when upset, and are thus more able to work towards solutions to problems.

This is because you learn, through appropriate venting, that most bad feelings are temporary. You know you’re going to feel better pretty soon. And that is the foundation of emotional self-regulation.

After a child vents appropriately, step two is moving on. Teaching our kids to do that requires us to notice when their venting seems ready to finish. They sound less upset, their faces look calmer, their body language relaxes. It’s important to teach them to seize this moment rather than wallow. This sounds like: “I’m so glad you told me how lousy you felt, and now it looks like you’re ready to move on. Can we do that?” If your child says yes, great, move on. If they say no, help them decode their situation more accurately, and give them tutelage in the art of letting it go and moving on: “It looks to me that you’re feeling calmer, and are ready to move on, so let’s do that.” If a child genuinely feels heard, a gentle nudge towards moving on is generally helpful.

At which point you ask your child how they want to solve the problem. Or maybe it’s something they just needed to vent about. Either way your child, having been listened to and coached to move on, now has a tool for emotional self-regulation.

They can manage their feelings without getting overwhelmed by them or stuck in a bad place. They have a foundation for working through bad experiences in a constructive way. Research tells us that children who can regulate their emotions behave better, show more empathy towards other children and are less stressed. They’re better at resolving conflicts with peers and they do better in school. How else to meet every challenge life brings?

How parents can teach our kids to manage their emotions

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