Emotion Regulation is not easy. It is one of the hardest things we do in our lives. But, it is a lot easier when we learn how to do it in childhood. I was a child who couldn’t manage anxiety. I found ways to avoid anxious situations and over time, my life became small. When you avoid what makes you uncomfortable, you miss out on important opportunities, and missing out keeps you from growing. The goal of childhood is growth. We want kids to leave our homes with the ability to manage discomfort. If our primary goal is to make kids comfortable they won’t grow the emotional muscles that will carry them into the world, where they will need to be strong.
The steps to Emotion Regulation are simple, but not easy. If your child follows the steps, they will be able to handle just about anything.
The 4 Steps to Emotion Regulation
- Acknowledge the Feeling
- Rate the Intensity
- Name the Trigger
- Choose a Strategy
1. Acknowledge the Feeling – This is the most important step. What is the feeling? The identification and acknowledgement of feelings is what makes us aware of what’s going on inside of us. 3-years-old is a great age to start teaching children how to identify feelings. At this age, children are concrete thinkers so a visual of what feelings look like is most effective. You can get a set of 20 feeling cards here. I recommend you begin using feeling cards as a bedtime routine with your child. Ask your child to pick 3 feeling cards and identify what triggered each feeling (i.e. “I was sad when Sam didn’t want to play with me”). Then you pick 3 feelings and share what triggered each feeling. I would recommend you pick the feeling your child struggles with most everyday. If your child struggles with anger say, “I was angry when I got stuck in traffic.” The next day, choose something else that makes you angry. This helps normalize emotions and allows kids to see that parents have emotions to manage, too.
2. Rate the Intensity – How intense is the feeling? Draw a number line from 1-10, 1 being the least intense, 10 being the most intense. Ask your child to name what a 10 is for them (yelling, shutting down, hitting something), then move to a 5, a 1, and then fill in the rest. If the intensity of the feeling is 1-7, your child can use a coping strategy to manage the feeling. If they’re an 8-10, they need to reset their brain by changing the five senses. The easiest way to reset the brain (if you’re at home) is to take a shower. Taking a shower resets all of your senses. If your child is away from home, ask them to step outside (see something different), put a mint in their mouth (taste something different), smell lavender oil (smell something different), listen to their favorite song (hear something different). This will wake their brain up. For more information on the 8-10 (what I call Flooded) read Flooded: A Guide to Helping Children Manage Emotions. To help children learn how to measure the intensity of emotions, you can use this poster.
3.Identify the Trigger – We are triggered by the same themes throughout our lives. Our triggers have two themes: people or things. I am triggered by people so as I look back on my life, I have been triggered by teachers, coaches, friends, peers, co-workers, etc. This awareness helps me say, “there I go again,” when I feel I have let someone down or upset someone. Other people are triggered by things – money, jobs, weather, retirement, the economy, climate change, etc. Kids who are triggered by things worry about grades, careers, sports and being the best. Kids who worry about people are triggered by the opinion of peers, teachers, coaches, etc. The awareness of themes help kids learn important information about their inner worlds. As they get older, they will understand their reactions to the events in their lives and be able to better manage emotions.
4.Choose a Strategy – Your child doesn’t need 10 strategies to manage emotions, they just need 2 or 3. At the end of the day, all anyone needs is the ability to relax the body and change thoughts. Square Breathing can relax your body and Change the Channel can help you choose a more productive thought. When kids come into my office, these are the first two strategies I teach. This set of feeling cards will give your child 20 strategies to choose from. As a parent, you might need your own strategies to help your children manage emotions. If that’s the case, you can find 15 parenting strategies here.
No matter where your child is in this process, it’s never too late to begin. I know many adults who are just starting the process. I know some 7-year-olds who could teach a class on emotion regulation. We are all at a different place, going at a different pace but what’s important is that we begin.
I join all of you in this process. As a parent. As a psychotherapist. As a person who is trying to do their best to manage all of the feelings.