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Helping Young Children Cope with Emotions

Anyone who has spent significant time around young children can attest that oftentimes the biggest emotions come in small packages. Exasperated parents often ask therapists how they can teach their children to control their emotions. Human babies are born with highly underdeveloped nervous systems. Initially, they are unable to regulate even the most basic functions such as body temperature, breathing, and heart rate on their own. Babies rely on physical contact with their mother or another close caregiver.

As children develop and their nervous systems mature, they become more able to regulate some functions. However, what many people don’t realize is just how much children continue to need help from their parents in coping with their emotions beyond infancy and toddlerhood, and well into preschool age and beyond. The most effective ways for parents to help young children cope with their emotions involve not instructing children on how to regulate themselves, but practicing co-regulation and modeling emotional regulation ourselves.

Co-Regulation Techniques

Co-regulation begins instinctively when we care for infants. It starts as we hold, rock, nurse, pat them, sing to them, and find the specific algorithm of sound, movement, and contact that soothes each baby. As children grow, co-regulation remains an important and effective means of helping them cope with their emotions and learn how to regulate themselves. Just like infants, children differ in the way they respond to different regulation techniques. So, part of what they need from parents is to try different approaches and be attuned to what does or doesn’t work. Some co-regulation techniques to try include:

  • Adjusting the sensory environment. This includes lowering your own voice, dimming the lights, etc.

  • Offering the child a hug, or deep pressure such as a massage or a weighted blanket.

  • Helping the child label their feelings. Sometimes just being able to assign a name to the emotion can help start to contain it – and then validate the feelings.

  • Moving your bodies together like taking a walk, turning on some favorite music and “dancing it out”, doing jumping jacks, or any enjoyable physical activity.

  • Modeling deep breathing, or a specific breathing technique such as belly breathing or box breathing.

  • Redirecting the child towards a calming hobby or activity such as arts and crafts or a puzzle.

Parents sometimes express concern that practicing co-regulation might make their children too dependent on them. The reality is that as we co-regulate, we are teaching by example. Children learn through experience to identify what works for them so that when they are developmentally ready, they have a toolkit of skills they can use on their own.

Modeling Self Regulation

Children also learn from parents via modeling self-regulation – which is why you must meet their storm with your calm. Children unconsciously mirror our behaviors. So, when they raise their voice, rather than responding by trying to be louder to get their attention, do the opposite – speak softer, calmer, and slower.

Let your children know that you sometimes have strong feelings too. Then, show or tell them your own strategies for handling them. Let them know that feelings are normal and not something to be feared. Children also feel safe when they know that their parents can handle their own emotions and won’t judge or abandon them when they are feeling out of control – when children feel safe, they not only stay calmer, they also learn better.

If you find yourself struggling to control your own emotions as a parent or feel that your child is having very frequent mood shifts and is unable to control their emotions even with help, it may be time to consult a mental health professional.  At The Hellenic Therapy Center, 567 Park Avenue, Scotch Plains, NJ we have a team of licensed professionals experienced at working with children and families, with day, evening, and weekend hours available. Please visit us at, FaceBook, or Instagram.  Call us at 908-322-0112 for further information.


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