Jerrika Blackamore, MSW, LSW
Children experience a range of emotions just like adults. They need the help of their caregivers to learn the important skill of emotional regulation. Developing this skill early on will help children to build healthy friendships and be successful in their academic and career endeavors.
I have a talkative toddler who has expressed some emotions by name. She has said, “I’m really mad” and “Mommy that’s scary.” At times she is able to express verbally how she feels, but does not always know how to handle her emotions. I’m at the beginning of my parenting journey, and I’m learning how to help her to do this. Some of you may have children at different developmental stages that are having trouble with coping with their emotions. It is helpful to have some general understanding of how a child’s brain functions prior to learning how to self-regulate.
The limbic system and the brainstem work closely together to create our emotions. When children become dysregulated, meaning they have lost control of their emotions, they are operating from their brainstem. The child may have a tantrum, yell, or throw toys while in a dysregulated state. The parent must not respond from their brainstem, but instead from their prefrontal cortex which is the portion of the brain that helps to regulate the body and emotions. Parents who use their own coping skills will be able to help calm the child down instead of worsening the situation.
Here are some ways to help a dysregulated child in the moment:
Get down to their level, by physically sitting or kneeling
Speak in a soft, warm voice
If age appropriate, offer a piece of gum(chewing is calming)
Encourage the child to take deep, slow breaths
Create an emotions jar(like this one found here)
Use physical activity(running, jumping, push-ups, taking a walk outside) to help regulate the body
Practicing these tips to help settle and calm down a child first will help to lead to a more productive conversation about what may have triggered them. It is my hope that at least one of these coping skills can be added to your child’s toolbox to help them to manage their big emotions.