THE BLOG

How Do Children Learn to Regulate Their Emotions?

Sep 09, 2013 | Updated Nov 09, 2013

As a child therapist, I am often asked, "Why does he continue to act this way -- to tease or hit his sister, to refuse to do his homework or clean up his room, to lie when we know that he is lying and he knows that he will be punished?"

Many parents (and some child therapists) assume that, in these situations, they have not been consistent enough in setting limits or imposing consequences for their child's bad behavior. But the correct answer is almost always, "He behaves this way because he is caught up in the emotion of the moment." As we all are, at times.

Among child psychologists, a consensus has emerged. A child's increasing ability to "regulate" her emotions -- to express her feelings in constructive rather than impulsive or hurtful ways -- is now recognized as a critical factor in children's psychological health.

Improved emotion regulation leads to benefits in all areas of a child's life. Children who are able to regulate their emotions pay more attention, work harder, and achieve more in school. They are better able to resolve conflicts with their peers and show lower levels of physiological stress. They are also better behaved -- and more caring towards others. (These conclusions are based, especially, on research by John Gottman and his colleagues on the benefits of parental "emotion coaching.")

Emotion regulation is an important idea with an unfortunate name. When we help children learn to regulate their emotions, we are doing much more than helping them control their temper. Yes, we need to teach them -- and to insist -- that if they want to talk with us about a problem, they must speak to us calmly. But emotion regulation is much more than anger management.

Emotion regulation means being able to think constructively about how to cope with feelings. We want children to have their feelings, but not be overwhelmed by them -- to feel discouraged but not give up; to feel anxious but not stay home; and to be excited but not get so carried away in their enthusiasm that they use poor judgment in making decisions.

There is somewhat less agreement on how children learn this critical emotional skill. Some therapists emphasize cognitive processes and have developed programs to help children think differently about the situations that evoke strong feelings. Others emphasize the importance of setting limits and providing opportunities for children to practice self-control.

In my experience, however, children most effectively learn to regulate their emotions when they are confident that their feelings will be heard. When a child expects that her feelings and concerns will be appreciated and understood, her emotions become less urgent. Because each disappointment and frustration now feels less painful, less "catastrophic," she will be less insistent in her demands, and more open and flexible in seeking solutions to problems. She will less often get stuck in attitudes of blaming, argument and denial. She will be more able to feel empathy and concern for others, and to take responsibility for her actions.

We therefore need to set aside time, every day, to listen to a child's concerns. Of course, we cannot listen patiently -- or listen well -- when we are tired or hurried; when we are burdened or preoccupied; or when, at that moment, we are just too angry. Over time, in healthy development, children come to understand this.

In these conversations, children begin to learn that their bad feelings, although painful, will not last forever -- that through their own efforts or with the help of supportive adults, they can make things better. This may be the most important lesson we can teach, the lesson that is most essential to our children's present and future emotional health.

Some parenting advisors believe that contemporary parents now pay too much attention to their children's emotions -- that our concern for children's feelings has become over-solicitous and indulgent. There is, undoubtedly, some truth in this critique.

But we should not let these excesses, however common, obscure a more important truth: When we accept and value our children's emotions, we not only help them feel better, we help them do better, in all aspects of their lives.