Emotional regulation skills are of growing importance in a world where depression and self-esteem are at an all-time low for children.
At the same time, we know that resilience and empathy — along with emotional regulation skills — are protective factors that help guard against these challenges. These skills are teachable, according to expert Michele Borba, Ed.D.
What are Emotional Regulation Skills?
Although emotional regulation skills are multifaceted and complex, the short description is that they reflect a child’s (or an adult’s) ability to refrain from acting out “in the moment.” Emotional regulation skills happen in the pause that happens between thought and action, wherein we process how we’re instinctively inclined to react versus how we want to respond.
How do we teach emotional regulation skills?
One key way to teach emotional regulation skills is through emotion coaching. If a child learns to pause — to check in with themselves to see how they’re feeling before they act — it helps them slow down just enough to consider the potential consequences of their actions.
That said, the prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain that handles executive function skills like these — isn’t fully developed until around the age of 25.
How do we help it develop?
We can give our kids plenty of practice — along with a roadmap of what to do when they feel flooded with emotions.
Related mini-course: Holding Space for Kids’ Big Feelings
Emotion coaching enables children to understand what they’re feeling and why.
It gives them tools to navigate their emotions and process them in healthy ways. It normalizes and creates a safe for full expression of whatever it is they’re experiencing.
How does emotion coaching work?
When a child is young, a caregiver can help the child learn about their feelings in three key ways:
- By modeling and describing their own emotions (Example: “I’m crying because I feel sad.”)
- By labeling and discussing their child’s emotions (Example: “You feel happy. I can tell by the big smile on your face.”)
- By labeling and discussing others’ emotions (Example: “This character in your book feels mad. I can tell because his face is red and he’s scowling.”)
As the child grows older, a caregiver can add more detail and complexity to the discussion:
- “I’m crying because I feel sad. I’m lonely for Grandma. I miss her.”
- “You feel happy that we’re playing together. I can tell by the big smile on your face. I’m curious if you’re also feeling excited and relieved because we can play all day without having to go anywhere else.”
- “The character in your book feels mad. I can tell because his face is red and he’s scowling. I wonder if he also feels embarrassed because everyone is looking at him and pointing.”
I refrain from including specific ages to represent a “young” child versus an “older” one because each child differs in their emotional literacy and in their comfort in talking about emotions.
Also, because child development is not linear, what might work for a child one day might not work at all for that same child, the very next (or even later that same day). Just as emotions are fluid and dynamic, so is the child’s ability to embrace, comprehend, and work through them.
Michele Borba, Ed.D., explains that resilience is learned, and not necessarily an innate skill.
Why do emotion coaching and emotional regulation skills matter?
With emotion coaching, and regardless of their age, we give our children something to do with their emotions. It’s a roadmap for managing their feelings in healthy ways. We’re showing how to navigate feelings; to embrace them. To befriend and welcome them.
Similarly, with emotional regulation skills, children learn that they can trust a predictable process of working through situations that feel tricky to them. They can reliably
- Have the experience, whatever it may be.
- Learn to pause to see how they feel about the experience.
- Decide how they want to respond to the experience.
When they give themselves the gift of choosing their response, they can decide whether the experience is something they can manage on their own or examine whether they need support.
When they seek support, of course, we create a virtuous cycle of kids identifying where they need help — and accordingly, getting that support.
These are skills on which they can rely in all of their relationships throughout their lives.