emotional regulation and my little one

Photo credit @ Lauren Denise Photography

Emotional Regulation   |   Emotional regulation is defined as “internal and external processes involved in initiating, maintaining, and modulating the occurrence, intensity, and expression of emotions.” My daughter is a toddler, meaning she is capable of feeling a complete rainbow of emotions in a matter of minutes. She can go from a moment of pure happiness filled with giggles to a moment of distraught sadness with full on tears with the blink of an eye.

My daughter was not born with the ability to regulate her emotions; quite simply, she has very little emotional regulation. In order to regulate her emotions, she would need to watch her feelings, be able to understand her emotions, and then acclimate them to the situation. As her mother, I believe it’s part of my ‘job description’ to assist and teach her how to regulate these emotions. I believe this is imperative to her development because emotional regulation influences nearly every part of our existence. This can be as uncomplicated as helping her with this regulation can be as straightforward and compelling as reassuring her when she’s scared, calming her when she’s angry, or comforting her when she’s sad. However, “uncomplicated,” can often be easier said than done.  

Areas Emotional Regulation Affects   | Emotional regulation can affect all parts of life. But, one of the greatest areas emotional regulation in a child affects is, the parent. When my toddler cannot self-regulate, it puts a strain on myself as the parent and the parent-child relationship she and I have with one another. It does this in large part because it is, quite simply, exhausting. So, emotional regulation in toddler’s affects the family.

Sadly, emotional regulation can affect peer relationships. My daughter struggles most with her emotional regulation when she comes home from a visitation with her dad. For example, during a music class right after a visit, she was unable to participate in the activities of the class. During different activities, the class was instructed to interact with other individuals and children. My daughter could not handle this task at the time. When another child came to sit on my lap or by me, an uncontrollable meltdown began. For obvious reasons, the other children didn’t want to be by her or interact with her when she was behaving like this. Granted, I realized my baby was needing more TLC from me after being away. I tried my best to provide reassurance and comfort to her. However, after a visit, her ability to self-regulate her emotions is even less than normal. Unfortunately, we had to leave her beloved music class early that day.

Emotional regulation can and does affect a child’s school work and academic performance. When a child is able to regulate their emotions, they have better attention, problem-solving skills, and focus rather than anxiety during exams. In terms of a child’s long-term educational aspirations, emotional regulation leads to better long-term goal achievement.

A child’s mental health is affected when they aren’t able to regulate their emotions. Whether at home, school, or somewhere else, a child is more resilient when in a stressful situation or in distress if they have the ability to regulate their emotions. Therefore, emotional regulation gives a child a greater distress tolerance. This is especially important for my daughter with regard to her custody visitations. At one time, visitations were extremely traumatic for her. They have since improved, however, remain stressful for her. Being able to understand and regulate her emotions around these changing environments will greatly help her mental health.

Point blank, experts agree emotional regulation is one of the most import pieces of a child’s overall development.

Learning Emotional Regulation   |   Little ones learn to regulate their emotions through three primary family-related means.

OBSERVATION:  Children are like sponges. The watch and absorb everything their parents do, study it, embody it, and then try to imitate the same behavior. Therefore, modeling behavior as a parent has long been identified as a key component in how a child learns to regulate their own emotions. When I have the ability to manage my own emotions, my daughter can observe an appropriate and “healthy” response by my own emotional demonstration and interaction with others. 

For example, if a parent reacts to certain situations by cursing, yelling, and blaming when something goes wrong, their child learns to react the same way and misbehave when things do not go the way they want. So, if I remain calm, think critically, and problem-solve about the task in front of me, my daughter will observe this behavior of mine. Therefore, she will learn to remain calm and find resolutions to the issues in front of her rather than blame others.

Besides modeling, emotional contagion is another great way a child learns to regulate their emotions through observations. My daughter experiences emotional contagion when she unconsciously senses my emotions. When I exhibit a sad face, raise my voice, have a stern gesture, etc, a comparable or identical response is induced in my daughter. So when I get frustrated at my toddler, if I switch my voice tone to one that is very soft and quiet, it is more likely she will respond with a similar nature of soft and quiet emotions rather than yell or talk back at me.

So, in short sum, parents can help their children learn sufficient emotional regulation by exhibiting healthy emotional regulation skills themselves through modeling, showing positive emotion, and exposing their children to surroundings and people who possess healthy emotional regulation.

PARENTING STYLEMy beliefs about emotional regulation will have the largest impact on my daughter’s ability to regulate her own emotions. Accepting, sympathizing, and validating my toddler’s emotions (even her outbursts of negative emotions) will influence her emotional regulation development positively. Trying to be aware of my daughter’s feelings helps me do this. For a long time (especially through her therapy), my daughter and I have been working on verbalizing her emotions when she is upset. Fortunately, she is a toddler with great verbal skills. However, having her recognize when she is “frustrated” (or whatever other emotion she is feeling) is hard for any toddler.

Recognizing a particular emotion is hard for toddlers (and often part of the reason for an outburst) because they don’t fully understand their own emotions, making it hard to control and regulate them. One exercise my daughter and I do to help with this is with a mirror. With a handheld mirror my daughter and I will make a series of faces in the mirror while labeling them verbally out loud. So, when we make a sad face we say this is “sad” and repeat several times. We do this with several different emotions and their coordinating facial expression to practice emotion recognition.

Responsiveness in parents is said to lead to positive emotional regulation in children. When parents are responsive, children are said to correlate their parents with distress relief. So, remaining calm to my toddler’s outbursts is more likely to cause her to have a smaller outburst. Other techniques I use to help her calm during an outburst are deep breathing (we put our fingers on our noses’ and try and feel our breaths’), redirecting her attention elsewhere (distracting her with another object or task), and reframing the situation (making her notice a part of the situation she would like).

EMOTIONAL ATMOSPHERE IN FAMILY: The amount of positive versus negative emotions shown amongst the people in a child’s family is a valuable indicator of a child’s ability to regulate their emotions. Factors that affect this family atmosphere are parents’ attributes, parent-child relationships, sibling relationships (if any), parenting style, marital relations, and how the family shows emotions. A child feels more accepted and secure when a family atmosphere remains positive, responsive, and consistent.

My daughter’s emotional family atmosphere is the biggest thing that affects her ability to self-regulate. Though the emotional atmosphere within our home (her primary residence) is positive, responsive, and consistent, she still has to cope with transitioning between her primary residence and visiting her dad; doing so is extremely hard on her. No matter how routine a custody schedule is capable of being, it is a level of inconsistency that is difficult for many children to cope with. Though her dad and myself have improved our co-parenting communication, it still needs a great deal of work. He and I are two very different people who do not see eye to eye on most things. Translation, we parent very differently. Furthermore, though the tension between our two families has improved, we spent over two years in and out of court in a custody battle. Sadly, our daughter had to feel some level of those feelings during that time. All of this has lead to a level of inconsistency that has caused my daughter to really struggle with emotional regulation.

In Conclusion   |   To restate, my toddler is capable of a range of emotions in a matter of minutes. She was not born with the ability to regulate her emotions. And, as her mother, I believe it’s my job to help her learn how to understand and regulate her emotions. I believe this is absolutely necessary for her development (specifically her emotional intelligence) because emotional regulation affects many areas of a child’s life. There are three main ways a child learns how to regulate their emotions: observation, parenting style, and emotional family atmosphere. The inconsistency in my daughter’s family atmosphere due to having divided parents is her biggest struggle in learning to regulate her emotions. We continue to work hard to help her through such an important developmental stage, and hope she will continue to grow into the beautiful little lady she is becoming.

xoxo, alli

Look details for mommy: Pink Top (similar styles here and here)   |   Tory Burch sandals (additional links here and here)   |   Kate Spade earrings (additional links here and here)   |   Hudson jeans (similar styles here, here, and here)   |   Tory Burch bag (similar styles here, here, and here)   |

Look details for baby: Boden dress   |   Janie and Jack sandals   |

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