Two Steps to Help Your Child Regulate Emotionally

By Tyler Witzig, MSW, LMSW

Falling to the ground in a heap of tears when it’s time to leave the park. Saying “I hate my brother!” when they don’t get any presents at their brother’s birthday party. Inconsolable crying before school drop off. Sound familiar? Things get tricky when our kids feel huge emotions. Emotions like fear, sadness, jealousy, anger, or disappointment can be overwhelming for our kids (let’s be real, they can be overwhelming for us adults, too!). These feelings can even feel alarming to our kids; they feel like they’re losing control, and sometimes they begin acting with desperation. I bet you can identify several examples, like the ones I mentioned above, when your kid seems to be acting out of a desperate, scared, and overwhelmed place.

Our job as parents is to help them navigate these emotions, to teach them resilience, and help them return to a state of calm. But this can be easier said than done, especially when our own “stuff” gets in the way…

  • Like when we have flashbacks to our own childhood struggles and issues with our parents.
  • Like when we feel self-conscious about parenting our kids in public.
  • Like when we get overstimulated by the sound of their loud crying.
  • Like when we start to grow impatient because of their lack of cooperation.

When these overwhelming shows of emotion come up (and we all know they do), here are two of the first steps to consider when engaging with your child’s emotions.

Two Steps to Help Your Child Regulate Emotionally

  1. Help Yourself Stay Calm. When our kids are feeling out of control, they look to others to help them regulate their emotions. This is a process called “co-regulation”. Taking deep breaths, running cold water over our hands, or humming to ourselves are ways we can start to soothe our own dysregulation. As long as your child is safe, it’s okay (and sometimes good) to step away for a moment and gather your composure.

  1. Connect to Your Child’s Emotions. Moments of dysregulation are great moments to help our kids learn about their feelings. In the short run, this can help our kids re-regulate and get back to a place where they can feel a sense of calm and cooperation. In the long run, we want our kids to notice their own emotions and take proactive steps to soothe themselves. Using the examples from the beginning of this post, here are some things we might say to our kids. Notice how each of them highlights a feeling word.
  • “You feel so disappointed that we have to leave the park. You’ve been having so much fun here. That makes a lot of sense that it’s so hard to leave.”
  • “Oh wow. Those are some big words. You must be feeling really upset to say something like that. I wonder if you’re feeling jealous that your brother is getting so much attention today.”
  • “I know going to school takes a lot of courage some days. It makes sense that you’re feeling scared today.”

You deserve to feel well equipped in the desperate times of your kids’ big emotions. While these phrases aren’t magical fixes, they’re a good start to connecting genuinely with your kids. Connecting with your child’s emotions tells them, “I’m here to be with you when you get overwhelmed. Your strong emotions won’t scare me away. I can help you learn how to handle these powerful feelings in a safe way.” Throughout the years, you are teaching them to connect with themselves, look to others for help, and respond in a compassionate way. Good work, parents– the world needs this!

If you’d like more support in helping your kiddos through strong emotions, we will be hosting a virtual parenting seminar with Tyler Witzig, MSW, LMSW at The Center on Tuesday, November 15 from 6:30-8:30. Find out more about Parenting Emotional Regulation for 3-10 Year Olds here. We’ll talk further about how to help your young child regulate and how to address concerning behaviors in a way that’s effective and compassionate.