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Emotion Regulation & Why It's So Important for Little Ones



“Children learn more from what you are than what you teach” – W.E.B. Du Bois

It’s one of those days. My kiddos wake up on the wrong side of the crib and the wrong side of the bed – double whammy. I attempt to make breakfast, but in return I get screechy, whiny voices that battle every suggestion I make, so I choose their breakfast for them. I try to sit down at the table to get them to eat, knowing that if they don’t, we’ll all pay for it later with blood sugar crashes and tantrums. Instead, food ends up on the floor, and drinks are spilled all over the table. Now we have 10 minutes to get ready for school and rather than getting dressed and ready, I look up to see my kids running outside to climb on their swing set. It’s a battle to get them to put their clothes on, brush their teeth, make sure they have everything and get out the door! 

Inside, I want to pull my hair out! I’m so tired. I didn’t sleep last night because I was up most of the night with our newest addition to the family and suddenly another night’s sleep has come and gone in the blink of an eye. “Just do what I ask and stop making things so difficult!” is what I yell in my head (and almost yell out loud before I restrain myself).

But today is a day that I don’t do that, and instead listen to the rational voice in my head that says “This is what six and two year olds do. They explore, they try to push the limits however they can, and they can’t yet regulate their emotions, so it all just comes out in whiny voices or by constantly fighting with each other.” Somehow, today, that voice quells my own desire to let my frustration get the best of me. On other days, that desire gets quelled by telling everyone I need to take a break and going in the other room to catch my breath. Sometimes it’s just a look from my husband to remind me to take that break. Sometimes it’s yoga. And sometimes, I fail, and I get frustrated and yell, or say things I wish I didn’t say, or become irritable and snappy myself because I’ve tried to push away the frustration in a space in my mind that is already overloaded with so many other things. No one is perfect, and each moment we feel an intense emotion around our kids is another opportunity to model emotion regulation. Each time we succeed in this area, it’s another deposit in the bank because we are teaching our kids an extremely valuable lifelong tool: how to deal with their emotions, even if it isn’t comfortable.

Why is emotion regulation so important? Research has shown that the better kids are able to emotionally regulate, the better they fare in school, work, and social relationships1,2,3. They are also less likely to abuse substances or develop destructive behaviors4. Therefore, it’s important for us parents to model what “healthy” emotion regulation looks like more often than not. Since modeling is the strongest form of learning for our little ones5 (yep, you can teach them as much as you want by what you say, but if your actions do something else, they are going to likely mimic that instead!). Feelings like anger, sadness, jealousy (or even extreme excitement) can be challenging for anyone to deal with. Kids don’t yet know how to cope with those intense feelings so their natural tendency before they “learn” cognitively, is to act it out. If we as parents can model how to deal with those feelings ourselves in a positive way, our kids will be more apt to follow. We can then coach them through times when they start to feel these intense feelings and help them identify it and verbalize healthy ways to deal with it. If they’ve already seen us do it, it will be even easier for them to understand.

Regulating our own emotions as parents can be difficult as is, but even more so if (when) we are sleep deprived. It is important to find preventative ways to stay in balance, as well as to find ways to deal with intense frustration in the moment when our kiddos are doing everything we tell them not to do (bouncing on the couches, fighting with each other, running when we ask them to walk or yelling when we ask them to talk quietly, to name a few). Here are some tips and tricks for healthy emotion regulation:

PREVENTION

  1. Skip the caffeine. Caffeine can make us irritable and more short tempered with our kids6.
  2. Eat healthy and focus on whole foods and proteins. Certain foods can trigger blood sugar crashes (think sugary, processed, carb laden foods) which can also make us irritable. Focus on whole foods (if you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it!) and integrate proteins for more balanced energy levels.
  3. Exercise! Exercise is a great natural stress reliever and raises good endorphins. If we feel good inside we have more energy to deal with things when they get tough.
  4. Get sleep! Sleep deprivation can add up and lead to irritability because we just don’t have as much energy to deal with fussy kiddos.

INTERVENTION

  1. Listen to the rational voice. It may be really hard to hear “that voice” when your kids are fussing, whining or crying, but there is usually a voice that knows this is part of the parenting experience and that there is a reason for the acting out. Listen to that voice more often and it will become stronger and louder. And keep in mind you may be getting frustrated because you have unrealistic expectations. For example, “my little one, shouldn’t be fighting with his sister” or “ my little one should be able to put on his own shoes by now” or “my little one shouldn’t be so fussy!”. Are you sure about that? What is realistic for this age range? If in fact it’s not an unrealistic expectation that you hold, try and figure out what might be causing the problem and look to solve it, one step at a time.
  2. Take a break. It’s okay to tell your kids you need your own “time out” for a moment. Don’t be surprised if you suddenly see your kids asking for their own time out if they start to get mad or frustrated 
  3. Yoga is a great way to get both the benefits of physical exercise and calm your mind.

Just remember that while it’s important to feel all your feelings and to teach your kids that as well, it’s equally as important to teach your kids how to cope with those feelings as life will throw them a thousand experiences where they will need the skills to deal with it themselves. The most important place the learning starts is within ourselves.

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Cassandra Curtis, Co-founder + Chief Innovation Officer, Once Upon a Farm

Cassandra is a mother of 3 girls. She lives in San Diego with her husband, daughters, 2 cats and a dog. Cassandra works full time as co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer at Once Upon a Farm and as a mom. In the rare free time that she does get, she loves to do Yoga (she is a certified yoga teacher), cook healthy meals, run, travel, and spend time with friends and family.

 

References

  1. Graziano, P. A., Reavis, R. D., Keane, S. P., & Calkins, S. D. (2007). The Role of Emotion Regulation and Children’s Early Academic Success. Journal of School Psychology45(1), 3–19. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsp.2006.09.002
  2. Niven, K., Garcia, D., van der Löwe, I., Holman, D., & Mansell, W. (2015). Becoming popular: interpersonal emotion regulation predicts relationship formation in real life social networks. Frontiers in Psychology6, 1452. http://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01452
  3. Gross, J. J. (1998). The emerging field of emotion regulation: An integrative review. Review of General Psychology, 2, 271 – 299.
  4. Lynam, D.R. Inhibitory control as a predictor for conduct disorders. in: M.T. Bardo, D. Fishbein, R. Milich (Eds.) Inhibitory Control and Drug Abuse Prevention: From Research to Translation. Springer,New York; 2011
  5. Mark Nielsen and Keyan Tomaselli. Overimitation in Kalahari Bushman Children and the Origins of Human Cultural CognitionPsychological Science, April 16, 2010 DOI: 10.1177/0956797610368808
  6. Anthony P. Winston, Elizabeth Hardwick, Neema Jaberi Advances in Psychiatric Treatment Nov 2005, 11 (6) 432-439; DOI: 10.1192/apt.11.6.432