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Childhood Emotional Regulation

"It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge." ~ Albert Einstein

Two kids were lying down and giggling.

Emotional Regulation

Emotional regulation is not a skill we are born with. Anyone with a toddler or a teen will tell you their child’s mood can swing like a pendulum! Helping our kids self-regulate a wide range of emotions is among parents’ most important tasks. It is therefore worthwhile and beneficial to understand how emotional self-regulation develops and how we can help children acquire this crucial skill.

Emotional regulation is the ability to monitor and modulate your emotions when you have them and to manage how you experience and express them. In order to self-regulate emotionally, we need to notice, monitor and recognise different feelings, and adapt them appropriately for each situation. This doesn’t always mean decreasing negative feelings and increasing positive ones; merely suppressing negative feelings and forcing ourselves not to express them is not a good regulation process.


A child with poor emotion regulation skills throws tantrums and strains the parent-child relationship. This can impact siblings and the climate of the whole household, and lead to a negative spiral. Similarly, when it comes to friendships, children who can’t control their big feelings tend to have fewer social skills and experience difficulty making or keeping friends.

Typically, an inability to self-regulate big emotions can lead to traits like anger, withdrawal, anxiety or aggressive behaviour. At its worst, research shows these traits lead to an increased risk of dropping out of school, bullying, delinquency, substance abuse and antisocial behaviour problems.


Effective emotional regulation in children is a strong predictor of academic achievement and success. This is because good emotion management allows students to focus on performing during tests and exams rather than being impaired by anxiety. They also tend to have better attention and problem-solving capabilities and perform better on tasks involving delayed gratification, inhibition and long-term goals. Importantly, this effect carries on throughout life. In fact, research published in the Journal of Organisational Behaviour by researchers Cote and Morgan found that an adult who cannot master emotional regulation enjoys less job satisfaction, mental health issues and a general decline in health and well-being.


The world is challenging and the reality is that adverse events will occur during childhood. Those who have learned to regulate their emotions can better handle and bounce back from these events, have a higher frustration tolerance and demonstrate more resilience. Many clinical disorders in children are closely related to emotional dysregulation, putting a child at significant risk of developing anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and clinical depression. Concerningly, research published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies found this makes children more susceptible to future psychopathology, leading experts to consider emotion regulation skills essential for development.

The Process

It is definitely easier for some children to learn emotional regulation than others. For some, it comes quite naturally. For others, it can be a challenging process. This was explored in depth by Schore in the 2015 book, Af ect Regulation and the Origin of the Self, where it was found that some babies’ temperament is innately more capable of self-regulating than others. Importantly, while genetics matter, a child’s environment is the most important factor when learning emotional regulation because the capacity to regulate emotions is not set in stone, In fact, all children can learn to manage their feelings, given an appropriate environment. Read on for reasons why childhood experiences matter, and ways you can help your child begin to regulate their emotions.

Childhood Life Experiences Matter

When babies are born, their brains are not yet well developed. It is almost like building a house; the architectural blueprint may give the house its shape, but the outcome will vary significantly if made of straw, wood, or brick. Similarly, genetics determine the base blueprint for a child’s brain development, but their life experiences, like the house’s construction materials, can profoundly influence the outcome.

Just as it’s easier to impact the house during the building phase than to alter it later, so can human brains acquire some skills better or more easily during specific periods in life. These optimal times are called sensitive periods or critical periods.

After the sensitive period of learning a skill has passed, there is a gradual decline in the ability to become proficient. It is still possible to acquire a new skill, but it will take longer, or the person will be less likely to get good at it. For instance, studies show that the sensitive period to learn a second language and become genuinely bilingual is generally before puberty. In a Romanian orphanage experiment published in the National Academy of Science, orphans who had foster families adopt them before age two developed emotional regulation skills comparable to children who were never institutionalised. Those who remained orphans suffered considerably reduced skills and subsequent mental and emotional issues. Therefore, the sensitive period of emotional regulation is believed to be around the age of two years old.

Science proves the importance of early childhood life experiences. However, this doesn’t mean that once kids pass that age, they’ve missed the opportunity to learn emotional regulation. It only means it will be more challenging and take more time and patience. So it is better to do it right the first time when kids are young, rather than trying to fix it later.

If your child is older, don’t despair. It’s never too late to start helping children learn to self-

regulate. What you need is to start now – the sooner, the better. On the other hand, it also doesn’t mean the process of learning to self-regulate is over by age two – far from it. A child’s brain doesn’t finish developing until the mid-twenties.

Helping Kids Regulate

While many factors, including teachers,

schools, neighbourhoods, peers, culture and genetics can influence a child’s ability to regulate, and parents and family play a central role. Here are four factors that influence children’s ability to emotionally regulate.

Parent Modelling

Modelling has long been recognised as a crucial mechanism through which children learn and is the number one way to teach children emotional regulation. This is because kids observe their parents’ behaviours and reactions, internalising and mimicking these behaviours and learning the “correct” reaction in different situations.

To help kids learn effective emotional control, parents can work to adopt better emotional regulation strategies themselves and expose kids to a positive environment full of people with good self-regulation.

Self Care

For older children, self-care in everyday life is important to strengthen internal resources to regulate emotions. Activities that enhance self-care include exercise, mindfulness practices (such as meditation and yoga), adequate sleep and good sleep hygiene, and relaxation treatments such as listening to music.

Positive Parenting

Responsive, warm, and accepting parenting practices can help children with a broad range of coping mechanisms as well as social-emotional development and behavioural control.

When parents are responsive, their children associate them with comfort and relief from stress. Those who notice, accept, empathise with, and validate their children’s negative feelings tend to affect them positively.

They can teach kids emotional awareness by coaching them to verbalise how they feel and encourage them to problem-solve. But if parents are dismissive or disapprove of emotional expressions, especially negative ones, children tend to develop destructive emotional regulation methods.

Emotional Climate

Factors that affect the emotional climate of a household include the parents’ relationship, personalities, parenting style, parent-child relationships, sibling relationships and the family’s general attitudes towards expressing feelings. Children feel accepted and secure when the emotional climate is positive, responsive, and consistent. When the emotional climate is negative, coercive, or unpredictable, kids tend to be more reactive and insecure.


Becoming more reflective is another way individuals can build resilience at work. Being aware of possible ‘triggers’ to stress can provide individuals with the opportunity to prepare and gather resources so they are better able to ‘bounce back’. If an employee knows that a particular circumstance will be especially challenging, they can then implement coping strategies, such as seeking support.

Importance of Balance Nutrition for Children

A little girl enjoying her plate of healthy foods

It’s no secret that growing bodies need a lot of fuel, but what many underestimate is the fact that growing minds need fuel, too. The early years of a child’s life are an especially important time to build healthy eating habits to support a child’s optimal growth and development. Yet with sweetened drinks and fast food all around us, it can be hard to make healthy foods seem exciting and to achieve balanced and comprehensive nutrition in your child’s diet.

By proactively ensuring your family’s diet consists of predominantly nutritious food, you can set your children up for a successful future full of possibilities. Read on for the kinds of foods children need, what to avoid, and how to improve household nutrition.

What Foods Do Children Need for Optimal Development?

Each different coloured food or vegetable provides a unique set of nutrients, so when preparing a child’s meal try to serve ‘the rainbow.’ Try getting your children involved in picking a few colourful items to include in their meals or snacks. This will motivate them to eat their fruits and vegetables and help them learn about different produce. Here are some suggested foods to support children’s behaviour and assist in achieving greater learning outcomes.

NUTS AND SEEDS These are rich in zinc and very important for mood, the immune system and concentration.


Iron-rich foods such as red meat play a large role in achieving high concentration levels – they also offer B12 which is crucial to optimal brain development.


Salmon is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are highly anti-inflammatory. Omega-3s, particularly EPA and DHA, are crucial for brain and nervous system development. It also contains protein for growth, as well as Vitamin D for good immune function and autoimmune disease prevention.


Greens are a great source of magnesium, which plays an important role in growth, development and energy production in children.


Avocados contain nourishing fats that help balance blood sugar levels and support nervous system function. They also have Vitamin B5, also called pantothenic acid, a stress-fighting B vitamin that helps kids manage stress. Positive emotions also serve as a ‘buffer’ against workplace stress (Tugade & Fredrickson, 2004). How? Well, positive emotions enable individuals to make positive appraisals of what otherwise may have been a stressful situation.

Improving Household Nutrition as a Family

A mother and her two kids are happily baking together.

Children are more successful at developing healthy habits when they are a part of the whole family’s routine. It’s important to be a role model and create an environment that encourages kids to develop life-long eating habits. But it certainly doesn’t have to be a boring task. Instead, there are multiple fun and engaging ways you get the whole family involved. Here are three ideas:

Involve Children in the Cooking

Getting kids involved in preparing meals, trying new foods together and eating regularly as a family contributes to building healthy habits.

Grow a Vegetable Patch

Planting and growing veggies in the backyard is a great way to get the kids excited about eating and gives them the opportunity to learn about different vegetables.

Watch Food Documentaries

Discussion and investigation through food documentaries will often spark curiosity and show kids the process behind how different foods are grown.

"If you want to support your child's emotional health, you need to take care of your own emotions. Your tone, energy, and overall emotional presence serve as your child's emotional guidepost." ~ Angela Prues

If you need help supporting your children's emotional regulation, consider booking a Kinesiology and Coaching session with Katherine Anderson.

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