DOs and DONTs of Emotional regulation for kids and families

Anna I. Guerdjikova, PhD, LISW, CCRC
Director of Administrative Services, Harold C. Schott Foundation Eating Disorders Program
Lindner Center of HOPE





Emotion regulation refers to the process of generating and maintaining an emotion, as well as the ability to modulate its’ intensity and frequency in order to achieve socioemotional competence and sustain mental health. In modern society, from early age, we learn inhibition to downregulate our emotions (for example, to not cry in public or to not say anything when angry) which often results in emotional restraint. True emotional regulation is reached through focused monitoring, evaluating, and modifying of our emotional reactions and depends on the person’s age, temperamental characteristics and environmental circumstances. Some examples of successfully practicing emotional regulation include being able to calm self-down after something exciting or upsetting happens, sustaining focus on repetitive tasks, refocusing attention on a new task and controlling impulsive behaviors. The skill to emotionally regulate depends significantly on the persons’ age and brain maturity and thus understanding that some of the time the individual is not difficult or spoiled, but developmentally or circumstantially unable to control their emotions can help build empathy and strengthen family systems and relationships.

DOs in Emotional regulation

  • Do create safe space for all emotions- the good, the bad and the ugly. Being happy should be equally accepted in the family as being angry or sad.
  • Do model emotional regulation for your children and peers every time you can. Work on naming your emotion (ex.” I am very upset with you now..”), the reasons for it/ the trigger, if you know it (..”because you hit your sister..”) and the solution you have (..”so I will take a moment to regroup and then we will talk about how I am feeling and what helps me go through it”)
  • Do practice awareness of your reaction to the emotional dysregulation in others. The goal it to learn to respond to their outburst (observe, acknowledge, empathize and work through it) rather than react (yell back or slam the door and leave).
  • Do prepare and reflect. When a challenging situation lays ahead, take the time to prepare yourself and the child for it and afterwards reflect on how preparation and having a rescue plan had helped to minimize emotional outbursts.

DON’Ts in Emotional regulation

  • Don’t expect emotional regulation if the person is hungry, thirsty, tired, lonely or in other way physically unsettled. Emotions are felt in the body and learning how the body reacts to them is a crucial step in recognizing and further regulating them.
  • Don’t ignore or minimize kids’ emotions. They might see overly dramatic, or unnecessary, or inconvenient (airport tantrums, anyone?) but for the child they are real and often intense. Work on acceptance that even if we don’t get it, it is real for them and our job is to validate their struggle/excitement and teach them how to better self-regulate.
  • Don’t pretend you “feel it for them” if you do not. It is ok to state that “I don’t know what you are going through but I am here for you and I am willing to help you out in any way I can”.
  • Don’t try to “fix it” or make it go away or focus on it for too long. Emotions are fleeting, they can feel very intense when they occur, but most of them resolve or lose their overpowering force if the person “stays with it” (recognizes it, tolerates the distress for negative emotions and responds, rather than reacts) for long enough. Learning this skill early on can be truly helpful in adulthood

Practical skills to help with emotional regulation

Mindfulness techniques. There are many ways to focus on the “now” to help tame an emotional outburst. A simple example is the 5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Exercise. It can distract from the anxiety trigger, focus the person on the present moment, and help them relax in their body. Ask the person to : name 5 things they can SEE in the room (have them list them out loud) ; name 4 things they can FEEL (sock on my feet, knots in my belly) ; name 3 things they can HEAR (my voice, radio); name 2 things they can SMELL right now (my coffee) ; name 1 thing they can TASTE (if not in the moment, what did they taste last night) . This can be shortened to 4-3-2-1 or even 3-2-1, depending on the circumstances.

Relaxation techniques– teach yourself and your young ones deep breathing. Yoga Dragon breath and the Camel pose can be a fun quick way to release tension.  Explode like a volcano/ Balloon technique can be practiced anywhere and most children under 10 years of age find is helpful (pretend you explode like a volcano/popped balloon- you can jump up and model the eruption with your hands and make a lot of loud dramatic volcano sounds). Using movement, music and sensory activities can help further relax and refocus one’s brain.

Diligent self-care – emotional regulation is impossible in a body with unmet basic needs, namely being tired, hungry, thirsty, lonely or sick. Daily self-care, particularly getting enough rest depending on the person’s age, should be encouraged and taught by parents, especially to teens and young adults who have more autonomy and can make the connection between being overly tired and overly emotional and further