How to Support Emotional Regulation in Older Children
Parents of toddlers are all too familiar with emotional outbursts. When their two-year-old has a tantrum at the shops, they roll their eyes and exchange knowing glances with parents of other young children.
Fast-forward a few years and the scene will be entirely different. If a 10-year-old explodes in frustration after missing a goal at a soccer game and doesn’t manage to calm down quickly, parents are much less likely to laugh it off.
“Parents tend to be more embarrassed when older children aren't able to contain their emotions because they think it isn’t age-appropriate,” says Educational and Developmental Psychologist Dr Kimberley O’Brien. “They think, ‘She should know this by now’ or ‘I’ve mollycoddled him too much and that’s why he’s so emotional’. They blame themselves or question their parenting styles, but parents have to work in baby steps towards emotional regulation just like they would letting their child ride their bike to the shops on their own.”
Watch our short video in which child psychologist Amber Burden-Hill explains why emotional regulation is an ongoing process throughout childhood and gives her top tips.
There’s a wealth of evidence that school-based social and emotional learning (SEL) programs can help children learn to regulate their emotions. A review of four large-scale meta-analyses of SEL programs in primary schools (2018) found that they have positive effects on a range of important behavioural and academic outcomes. These effects were observed immediately following the end of the programs and at various follow-up periods. Another study (2018) found that an SEL program successfully reduced aggressive behaviour in third to fifth-grade students.
Kimberley believes parents can achieve the same results at home. “With the right strategies and careful planning, you can enable your children to manage their emotions independently,” she says.
Here are five strategies to help you support your child’s emotional regulation.
Tell me a Story
Invite young people to recall and retell their own memorable moments of extremity.
1. Start young (if you can)
Some children are naturally more emotionally reactive than others.
“Parents tend to pay more attention to their children’s negative outbursts, but it’s likely that those same kids will also get easily excited when something good happens and very upset during sad movies,” says Kimberley. “Parents can start teaching these children to regulate their strong emotions at a young age by encouraging them to use their words to describe how they’re feeling.”
If you feel like you missed that boat or your child is still reactive despite your best efforts, don’t despair. It’s never too late to teach older children new tricks.
2. Model emotional regulation strategies
One of the best ways to teach children a new skill is to model it. If you’re a reactive person yourself, this might take some practice.
“When you’re feeling overwhelmed, say, ‘I’m finding this very stressful, I’m going to have a cup of tea to calm down’ or ‘I need some time to myself, I’m going to go out on the balcony and have a stretch’,” says Kimberley. “By taking a break, you’re better able to put your strong emotions into words and express them. And by modelling this to your children, you’ll teach them to do it too.”
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3. Help your child build an emotional regulation toolkit
Instead of waiting for your child to explode and reacting negatively to their outburst, Kimberley suggests helping them build a toolkit to deal with situations where their emotions feel overwhelming.
“If your child tends to get upset when they miss a goal during a soccer game, you can help them decide what they’ll do to calm down,” she says. “They might grab their towel and water bottle and go for a walk or say to their coach, ‘I tend to get pretty angry if I miss a goal, so you might need to sub me out after that.’ The trick is to create steps to independence by helping them work out how they’re going to pull themselves together rather than fixing it for them.”
4. Develop a plan for trigger situations
Parents tend to know the types of situations that trigger their child, but they’re often unsure how to prevent the outbursts. According to Kimberley, planning ahead is the key.
“When your child is calm, say, ‘Do you notice how you’re often fighting with your sister while I’m trying to cook dinner? That doesn't feel comfortable for me, so what can we do to make that time of day better?’ Giving siblings separate stations to do homework or projects can help. You can have one child upstairs and one downstairs or even put markings on the floor to delineate areas. It’s not a punishment, but a way to prevent trigger situations.”
5. Use de-escalation strategies
When an outburst occurs, Kimberley suggests drawing on crisis de-escalation strategies that are used in detention centres.
“They’ll get all the children who are calm to assemble in one area and have the person who needs the most attention talked down by the person they most connect with,” she says. “If you don’t have someone to mind your other children who may be stressed by what’s just happened, you can have a calm mat that they can go sit on. You can have a boundary around it and say, ‘You don’t step off the mat when you’re in crisis.’ The key is to calm everyone down before trying to solve anything.”
Reward successful emotional regulation
If your child uses their calm-down toolkit or other emotional regulation strategies adequately, you may choose to reward them. “It's a good idea to connect the reward with the aim of the game, which is calmness,” says Kimberley. “You might do a relaxing activity together, like swimming in a heated spa or something else they love doing. Relaxation is the goal.”
View article references
- Mahoney, J. L., Durlak, J. A., & Weissberg, R. P. (2018). An update on social and emotional learning outcome research. Phi Delta Kappan, 100(4), 18-23. https://doi.org/10.1177/0031721718815668\
- Pelini, S. (2018). An Age-By-Age Guide to Helping Kids Manage Emotions. The Gottman Institute. https://www.gottman.com/blog/age-age-guide-helping-kids-manage-emotions/
- Portnow, S., Downer, J. T., & Brown, J. (2018). Reductions in aggressive behavior within the context of a universal, social emotional learning program: Classroom- and student-level mechanisms. Journal of School Psychology, 68, 38-52. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsp.2017.12.004
- Raising Children Network. (2021). Self-regulation in children and teenagers. raisingchildren.net.au. https://raisingchildren.net.au/toddlers/behaviour/understanding-behaviour/self-regulation
- Wong, A. S. K., Li-Tsang, C. W. P., & Siu, A. M. H. (2014). Effect of a Social Emotional Learning Programme for Primary School Students. Hong Kong Journal of Occupational Therapy, 24(2), 56-63. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.hkjot.2014.11.001