Letting kids know it’s okay to feel what they feel
Let’s start with an example
Five-year-old Miguel proudly held his baby sister, Selena, for the first time. After a few minutes, Selena started to cry. “Why is she crying?” asked Miguel. His mom replied, “She might be crying because she’s hungry or sleepy or maybe she wants you to sing to her. What do you think we could do that would help her stop crying and calm down?” Miguel shrugged and gave his sister back to his mom. Miguel’s mom tried rocking, feeding, and changing Selena until she finally stopped crying and fell asleep. She smiled at Miguel and said, “One of our jobs is to figure out what Selena needs when she cries and help her feel better.”
What’s going on
The skill that Selena’s mom was talking about with Miguel is called emotion regulation. When children are young, parents and caregivers help them regulate their emotions by paying attention to their cues and providing them with what they need. In this example, Selena’s mom realized from her crying that she was upset and did what she could (rocking, feeding, changing) to help her regulate that feeling.
Selena’s older brother, Miguel, also needs help from his mom to regulate his emotions. For example, when Miguel feels frustrated, he crosses his arms and pouts. This is a cue to his mom to ask him how he is feeling and point out what she notices (e.g., “I can see your arms are crossed and there is a big frown on your face. I wonder if you are feeling frustrated.”). She validates his feeling (e.g., “I feel frustrated too when I can’t do something by myself.”), and guides him through regulating his frustration by offering suggestions: “Do you think taking a deep breath and trying again would help? Do you want to take a little break and come back after we have a hug and calm down?” Miguel’s mom also can help him learn about emotion regulation by modeling how she regulates her own emotions.
Regulating emotions is not just about moving away from or getting rid of feelings we don’t like to have, or calming down when we are upset. It’s also about having emotions we want to have, like feeling happy, calm, and loved.
How to help your childTry these ideas at home to help your child practice regulating their emotions:
Sing this song and let your child suggest the feeling to sing about. Brainstorm together what you can do when you have that feeling.
Susan E. Rivers, Ph.D.
Susan E. Rivers, Ph.D. is a social psychologist and expert on emotional intelligence and social and emotional learning. She was a member of the Yale University Department of Psychology’s research faculty, the founding deputy director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, as well as a co-developer of the RULER framework for teaching emotional intelligence in preschool through middle school classrooms. Dr. Rivers is currently the Executive Director at iThrive, a non-profit that helps teens develop social and emotional skills, and positive psychology habits through the use of digital games.
Shauna Tominey, Ph.D.
Shauna Tominey, Ph.D., is an experienced early childhood and parenting educator with a great deal of experience in research programs promoting social and emotional skills for both children and adults. She also co-authored the book Stop, Think, Act: Integrating Self-Regulation in the Early Childhood Classroom. Dr. Tominey is taking on a new role as an Assistant Professor of Practice and Parenting Education Specialist at Oregon State University.