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5 Steps To Help Kids Learn To Control Their Emotions

Setting limits on kid's behavior doesn't mean we need to set limits on feelings.

"I love your posts, but my husband is afraid that if we allow our kids to get upset as you suggest, they'll never learn to control their emotions. Don't we need to just say No sometimes?" —Rachel

All of us worry about our kids learning to control their emotions. After all, it's emotions that so often get us off track and into trouble. And of course we need to just say No sometimes. Kids can't run into the street, throw their food at each other, or pee on their baby brother. But setting limits on children's behavior doesn't mean we need to set limits on what they feel.

In fact, you can't actually keep your child from getting upset, whether you "allow" it or not. Sending your child to his room to calm down won't keep him from being upset; it will just give him the message that he's all alone with those big, scary emotions, and he'd better try to stuff them. Unfortunately, when humans repress emotion, those emotions are no longer under conscious control. So they pop out unregulated, when your child lashes out or acts out.

It's that dysregulation that scares us, when our child seems completely out of control. But kids don't get dysregulated because we "allow" their emotions. They get dysregulated when they need to express an emotion but can't. So, instead, they "act (it) out."

So denying emotion or making ourselves wrong for having emotions doesn't help us control them. Here's how a child actually learns to control his emotions:

1. We model healthy emotional self-management by resisting our own little "tantrums" such as yelling. Instead, we take a parent time-out to calm ourselves down. If our child is too young for us to leave the room, we do as much processing at other times as we can, so we can stay more calm while we're with our kids. After all, children learn from us. When we yell, they learn to yell. When we speak respectfully, they learn to speak respectfully. Every time you model in front of your child how to stop yourself from acting when you're angry, your child is learning emotional regulation. (Most of us are still working on this!)

2. We prioritize a deep nurturing connection. Babies learn to soothe their upsets by being soothed by their parents. But even older children need to feel connected to us or they can't regulate themselves emotionally. When we notice our child getting dysregulated, the most important thing we can do is try to reconnect. When kids feel that we're delighted with them, they WANT to cooperate -- so that happy, fun connection eliminates most "misbehavior."

3. We accept our child's feelings, even when they're inconvenient (as feelings often are). ("Oh, Sweetie, I know that's disappointing....I'm so sorry things didn't work out the way you wanted.) When empathy becomes our "go to" response, our child learns that emotions may not feel good, but they're not dangerous, so she accepts and processes them as they come up, instead of stuffing them, where they get uglier. She knows someone understands, which makes her feel just a bit better, so she's more likely to cooperate. She doesn't have to yell to be heard. And when our support helps her learn that she can live through bad feelings and the sun comes out the next day, she begins to develop resilience.

4. We guide behavior but resist the urge to punish. Spankings, time outs, consequences, and shaming don't give kids the help they need with their emotions. In fact, the message kids get is that the emotions that drove them to "misbehave" are bad. So kids try to repress those emotions, and their emotional backpack gets even more full. That's one of the reasons that punishment actually leads to more misbehavior -- those feelings keep bubbling up out of the emotional backpack looking for healing, and your child lashes out because the emotions feel so scary. Instead of punishing, help your child stay on track with positive guidance, help processing emotion, and scaffolding (which just means that we help them to learn the skills until they can do it themselves.)

5. We help our child feel safe enough to feel his emotions, even while we limit his actions ("You can be as mad as you want, but I won't let you hit.") Your angry child is not a bad person, but a hurting, very young human. When kids aren't controlling their emotions, it's because they can't, at that moment. If you can stay compassionate, your child will feel safe enough to surface, feel and express the tears and fears that are driving his anger and acting out. If you can help him cry, those feelings will evaporate -- and the anger and acting out will vanish, too.

Is it important to teach kids words for their emotions? Sure. But don't insist that your child talk about feelings, which takes her out of heart and into her head and makes it harder to work through the feelings. Instead, focus on accepting your child's emotions. That will teach her that:

  • Emotions aren't bad, they're just part of the richness of being human.
  • We don't usually have a choice about what we feel, but we always have a choice about how we choose to act.
  • When you're comfortable with your feelings, you feel them deeply, and then they dissipate. That gives you more control.

Kids who are parented this way learn to "control" their emotions because they have a healthy emotional life, not because they've been told not to feel, punished, or shamed for their feelings.

If you're still working on "controlling" your own "tantrums," you'll be glad to hear that your kids will almost certainly be better at managing their emotions than you are. Why? You're doing the hard work now to help them learn how!

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