How to Teach Your Child Emotional Regulation Without Stigmatizing Mental Health

We’ve all lived it.

IPad time ends and your son goes ballistic. Did he think it was going to last forever? A “friendly” game of air hockey between siblings and the loser completely loses it. Did sis really believe her handle-turning prowess unmatchable? A fly lands on his hamburger, and well, ya know... "big emotions.”

Research abounds about the importance of emotional regulation for success in life. According to Michelle Borba, Ed.D. in her book Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine:

“The ability to control your attention, emotions, thoughts, actions, and desires is one of the most highly correlated strengths to success and a surprising untapped secret to helping kids bounce back and thrive. It is also a better predictor of academic success than IQ or SAT scores. In fact, self-control influences virtually every area of our children’s lives.”

Not only that, but studies have demonstrated a connection between dysregulation and a variety of mental health issues as kids get older, including everything from anxiety, depression, and substance abuse to suicide ideation, ADHD, and aggression. 

I’m convinced.

But there’s another consideration at play.

From Episode 100 of The Above Ground podcast:

“I feel like the stigma of mental illness is created in early childhood by discipline from the child’s parents. When a child has an emotional outburst and they’re disciplined for feeling and expressing their emotions, they learn the stigma at a very early age. If a child is feeling something, mirror the emotion so they feel accepted or let them feel it without judgment.”

We obviously don’t want to stigmatize mental illness in our children’s minds. Should they struggle with mental issues down the road, we don’t want them to feel ashamed. We want them to get the help they need, rather than pretend they’re okay. We don’t want them to delay seeking treatment for fear it will cost them their job or a relationship. We want to stamp out the stigma.

So how do you teach your kid emotional regulation while legitimizing their feelings?

Well, to start, it’s worth pointing out that the ability to regulate big emotions is largely dependent on age and development. Toddlers are tantrum machines, but 8 year-olds shouldn’t be. Somewhere in those formative years, a school-aged child should learn how to stay cool in the supermarket when their favorite popsicle flavor is out of stock. Though some children learn emotional regulation on their own (even-keeled children do exist—lucky you, if you’ve got one), many children need to be taught to express their emotions in a socially appropriate way.

Here are some tips I’ve gathered for teaching emotional regulation:

  • POINT OUT THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN FEELINGS AND BEHAVIOR

Explain that it’s normal to feel angry, sad, or scared at times. Validate your child’s feelings. But remind them they have a choice about how they respond to tough emotions. They can’t choose how they feel about something, but they can decide how to act.

  • GIVE THEM POSITIVE ALTERNATIVES

Provide children with strategies for handling their big emotions. Deep breathing, taking space, going outside, you name it. And then practice these strategies when your child isn’t upset! That’s right—when the kiddo is calm. It’s unfair to expect your child to utilize these strategies when they’re triggered unless they are in the habit of using them regularly. Practice, practice, practice.

  • CREATE BOUNDARIES

If certain behaviors aren’t resolving with calm-down strategies, consider implementing consequences. According to my favorite article, “30+ Tips for Building Resilience in Children” by Dr. Heather Lonczak: 

“Research suggests that child resiliency is supported by an authoritative parenting style, which is warm and supportive; yet also appropriately demanding in terms of expectations. In other words, authoritative parents provide consistent limits in a loving way.”

Be compassionate. Be empathetic. And let them know what is acceptable and what is not.

  • SEEK PROFESSIONAL HELP

If you’re concerned, if you’re having trouble managing your child’s emotions on your own, or if your child’s life is being disrupted by their emotions, please consult a doctor or therapist.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Let’s all do our part to fight stigma and educate our children about the vital importance of mental wellness.

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