Emotional regulation, or emotional intelligence, is a skill that we all possess to one degree or another. Most adults (note I say most) are able to identify emotions they are feeling at a given time, and have the mental tools to switch their thinking and adjust their outward reactions to these feelings. As grown-ups, many of us don’t realize how we got these skills. We don’t remember a time when we didn’t have the ability to, say, take a deep breath when angry, suppress tears or shake off a rude comment. The truth is, somewhere along the line, we were taught our emotional intelligence.
Children are not born with emotional regulation and need to be explicitly taught the necessary skills to cope appropriately. While every stage is important, toddlerhood is a vital time to engage children in learning these skills. Here are some tips to grow an emotionally intelligent child who is ready to interact with the world.
Comments like, 'You’re fine, you’ll get over it,' or 'You have no reason to be crying right now,' teach children not to trust their own assessments of how they are feeling.
Teach Kids to Name their Feelings
Young children know they experience physical sensations, and once they begin to speak, they can tell you when they’re hungry or want to go night-night. But naming emotions is a lot more complex, and many kids need help identifying what exactly feelings (for lack of a better term) feel like. One way to get the conversation rolling is to show the animated film "Inside Out," which has been praised for encouraging kids to take a look inside their own minds and how their emotions work. When children have a visual to go along with the emotion, like the characters embodied in the movie, it can make discussing abstract concepts like emotions much easier.
When your toddler displays a strong emotion, take a moment to name it and encourage your child to think about the sensation of that experience. Say, "You seem happy now. I can tell you are happy because you are smiling and laughing. Happy is how you feel when your brother shares with you," or "You seem frustrated right now because I won’t let you climb this fence. I can tell you are frustrated because you are crying. It is OK to be frustrated when you can’t do something you want to do. I get frustrated too, sometimes, but safety is important." We want children to be able to fully feel their emotions while still limiting their actions. This drives home the point that emotions are OK to feel, while still following Mom and Dad’s expectations.
Try the L.E.S.S. Method
This method, favored by teachers and counselors, gives parents a strategy for helping their children through tough emotional experiences. L.E.S.S. stands for Listen, Empathize, State the emotion and Stop there. If your toddler is throwing a tantrum in the checkout line, take a minute to get down to his level and ask him to tell you what’s the matter, if possible. Listen to his side of the story. Next, empathize: "I can see why it would be difficult for you to wait patiently when you’re bored. I get bored sometimes, too." Next, state the emotion. "I see you are frustrated with me because this is taking such a long time." Then, stop there. Let your child express anything else they need to say, and move on. It may not "solve" that particular tantrum at that particular time, but with repeated use, your child will learn to vocalize his or her feelings before a meltdown occurs, meaning it can possibly be avoided.
Do What I Say AND What I Do
We all know children copy what they see adults doing. It’s extremely important that the adults in your child’s life express their feelings and model positive emotional regulation. If your little one sees you go overboard with road rage or get in screaming fights with the neighbors, they’ll no doubt think that such behavior is normal and display it themselves. When you feel an emotion, share it verbally with your child and explain how you will deal with it. "Right now, Mommy is very frustrated because the dishwasher is broken. I know I’m frustrated because my heart is beating fast and my face is warm. I’m going to take a deep breath and count to 10 before I do anything else."
Emotions Are Complex, But Necessary
Avoid minimizing or talking your children out of their feelings. Comments like, "You’re fine, you’ll get over it," or "You have no reason to be crying right now," teach children not to trust their own assessments of how they are feeling. The same goes for timeouts for tantrums. According to Dr. Laura Markham, the founder of Aha! Parenting, "Sending your child to his room to calm down won't keep him from being upset; it will just give him the message that he's all alone with those big, scary emotions. … When humans repress emotion, those emotions are no longer under conscious control.”
Just like adults, children have layers of emotion, and when children feel afraid, guilty or sad, that can often present itself as anger. That’s why it’s so important to develop a dialogue with your children about emotions in order to dig down and find out what’s really going on, and teach from a young age how to appropriately deal with that emotion.
Emotional regulation is not something kids develop on their own. Each child’s emotional intelligence is the sum of their experiences with how adults handle their own emotions or their reactions to the child's emotional needs. Start the practice building the foundation of strong emotional intelligence today with your toddler—you won’t believe the results.