When Children Lose Control

Even well-meaning parents can inadvertently get in the way of a child learning these skills. When a parent avoids situations that are emotionally challenging, routinely gives in to tantrums or rushes in to fix things, the child loses the opportunity to practice and bolster their own coping abilities. “Kids need scaffolding and a support system in their parents, but they also need opportunities to learn how to tolerate and manage discomfort, which will help them in the long run,” said Susan Calkins, a professor of human development and family studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, who has been studying emotional regulation in children for nearly 30 years.

For children, lessons in regulating emotion can be found in big challenges, like going away to camp, or in smaller ones, like sitting through a dinner out without the crutch of an electronic device. Fortunately, there are proven strategies that can help children to manage emotions, even in the heat of the moment.

A first step is for parents to teach their children how to recognize the physical signs that they are about to lose control. Do their breathing and heart rate quicken? “When you are breathing rapidly, your heart rate goes up and your body is so focused on the in-the-moment physical response that it can’t engage in constructive thinking,” said Dr. Calkins. “Explain how slowing down those physiological responses by breathing deeply allows their heart rate to slow down to a manageable state so their brain can do the job of helping them cope.”

With younger children, parents can help them to express how they feel, reassure them that their feelings are normal and offer coping strategies, like distracting themselves by listening to music or counting by fives to 100.

When a child acts out instead of managing their emotions, a parent should step in with clear limits: “If you throw that again at your sister, you’re going to go to your room.” For teens, cognitive techniques like reappraisal (“Maybe she was short with me because she’s stressed”) and positive self-talk (“I can do this!”) can be effective coping strategies, said psychotherapist Robin Stern, associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.

While a child’s ability to manage their emotions can spare them from momentary public embarrassment, the real benefits are long-term. Self-regulation is a skill that offers big payoffs as we age, including better mental and physical health and stronger relationships, said Dr. Stern: “The more skillful we are at managing our emotions, the better we can handle life’s ups and downs.” Growing research finds that children who are able to regulate their emotions perform better academically and are more successful socially than those who don’t. In adolescence, strong self-regulation skills can help to buffer against impulsiveness and risky behaviors, such as sex and substance abuse.

Parents are key to their child’s ability to manage emotions, according to a study of 152 mothers with children ages 3 to 7, published this month in the journal Family Relations. The emotional self-regulation of the mothers was measured using a 10-item questionnaire asking, for example, how often they “have angry outbursts” or “overreact to small problems.” Researchers also assessed the mothers’ cognitive control—the processes that allow us to flexibly manage our thoughts and emotions in order to meet a goal—their parenting attitudes and approach to discipline, as well as their child’s conduct.

The study found that mothers with better emotional and cognitive control reported having children with fewer behavioral problems, while worse maternal control was linked to children with more conduct issues, such as angry outbursts and fighting with peers. In other words: It’s hard to teach your child how to effectively regulate emotions when you’re having a difficult time managing your own.

In a 2014 study in the journal Emotion, researchers recruited 161 adolescents and their mothers to take a widely used computerized math test that measures a person’s tolerance for distress. (The test speeds up as it goes on, causing forced errors, and blares a loud noise whenever mistakes are made.) Participants were told that the better they did, the bigger their prize would be at the end of the test. When the researchers calculated how long each participant was willing to participate in the task, they found a strong association between a mother’s tolerance level and her daughter’s.

Similarly, a 2014 longitudinal study of 219 German mothers and fathers and their 5-year-old children, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, found that a parent’s tendency to use healthy regulation strategies such as “reappraisal” (reframing a situation to give it a more positive view) or less healthy ones like “response suppression” (holding in external signs of emotion) led their children to use similar strategies over time as well.

When everyone’s emotions are running high, it’s tempting to give in to shortcuts. It can be especially hard for parents to regulate their own emotions when they see their child in distress.

But as parents, we want our children to go out into the world armed with the tools they need to successfully adapt to the many challenges they will face, now and through adulthood. As Dr. Calkins observed, “Life is about encountering novel, unpredictable situations, and there are very few that don’t have some emotional challenge to them.”

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