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As our research and understanding of child development expands, there is a growing movement among parents and caregivers to raise kids with “gentle parenting.” The core of gentle parenting is empathy, understanding and respect – both taught and modeled. And the key to all of these tenets? Emotional regulation.
What is emotional regulation?
Emotional regulation is the ability for someone to recognize, experience, control and manage their emotions.
Here’s an example: a parent has just completed a long day of work, and their small child runs up to them asking for a snack, to play outside and for help with a toy, all at the same time. The parent now feels overwhelmed and frustrated.
To emotionally regulate themselves, the parent notices the physical sensations they’re feeling – perhaps their heart rate increases and they feel warm – and connects them to their emotions, overwhelm and frustration. They may notice they’re responding to their child with clipped language or raising their voice. When they recognize what’s happening, they use strategies like taking a long, deep breath or telling their child, “I need to go to the bathroom for a couple minutes, and then I’ll come back and help you,” to calm themselves and re-center.
In a toddler, emotional regulation is still developing. Screaming, crying and throwing things are all developmentally appropriate ways little kids express big feelings because they don’t yet have the tools to regulate on their own.
For kids, co-regulation is key.
Co-Regulation starts from birth
From the moment they enter the world, infants learn how to regulate all functions of their body, especially emotions, through co-regulation with their caregiver. The child learns that when they have a need, the caregiver will meet their need. As they grow, the child begins to recognize that they’re important enough for someone to take their needs seriously and that other people can help them.
Dr. Michelle Roy, licensed clinical psychologist and program manager for WellPower’s Right Start for Infant Mental Health program said, “Co-regulation can really be boiled down to parents and caregivers providing support and structure to keep children safe and healthy, while modeling how to navigate the world.
“It can show up in a multitude of ways, and the biggest ones are physical and verbal,” Dr. Roy continued. “Physical co-regulation can look like giving a child a hug when they’re upset, soothing a crying baby or removing a child from an unsafe situation. Verbal co-regulation can sound like offering support, naming emotions and sensations to help children connect with what’s happening in their minds and bodies and providing a ‘menu’ of strategies that help with emotional regulation in age-appropriate ways.”
Why can emotional regulation be so difficult?
“When we’re put in any new situation, we go to what we know,” said Dr. Roy. “This is especially true for new parents. In many families, discussion about emotions and our understanding of child development is still relatively new. A lot of people who are parents and caregivers now are learning emotional regulation right along with their children, and that’s hard work.”
For parents and caregivers, part of this process is learning when, where and how to fill their emotional cup and express those emotions, so they can pour into someone else. Dr. Roy recommends a few strategies to help caregivers expand their emotional regulation capacity:
- Notice an emotion/experience without self-judgement. Having difficulty with tough emotions doesn’t make someone a bad parent.
- Remember that it’s part of the human experience to default to what we know and grew up with. Changing those patterns takes time and effort.
- Acknowledge the initial reaction, then move through it, take a breath and work on the “menu” of strategies for coping with difficult emotions and situations.
Learn more with Right Start for Infant Mental Health
Right Start is a mental health program for pregnant people and families with children ages birth to 5 years. We provide help when there are concerns about a child’s emotions, behavior or development, or when parenting becomes difficult. Learn more about the program at wellpower.org/right-start-for-infant-mental-health/.