5 steps to nurture emotion regulation and literacy in our family and beyond
When we see our child showing anger, sadness and all those other ‘less desirable’ emotions, we are naturally primed to respond to help them, to want to make them feel better and to take away the discomfort – for them and for ourselves – with better emotion regulation.
But taking away the feeling or asking our child to suppress it, doesn’t develop a healthy understanding around emotions and certainly doesn’t help to support regulation.
Emotion regulation is a developmental process and the maturing of our young person’s brain will play a big part in how they can process and regulate their feelings, but we can certainly support this process and make a real difference to how they are able to able to deal with emotions, their own and also those around them.
5 steps to growing more connection to feelings
Following the steps below we can grow our ability to talk about feelings in our family – and as usual it is not something we do just for our child, it’s a family project.
- Step 1 – Self-regulation – our own! Not the ‘always calm and happy, never angry or sad’ parent at all, but so important that we are able to feel our emotions, talk about them and have positive ways to support ourselves when they feel difficult – and we let our child see this. Sometimes we are still in the early stages of implementing emotion regulation ourselves and that’s absolutely fine -just being on the journey and being willing to explore and learn is a great role model for our young person. And when we don’t do it the way we wish we could – because we won’t always – being able to apologise and talk about that too, sets a wonderful example for them.
- Step 2 – Space – creating space and acceptance for ALL emotions in our home – even the ones that cause some discomfort and feel difficult. We can let our child know that being a human means that we don’t always feel joyful and curious; we will be frustrated and jealous and insecure too. Holding this space does mean that we have to get comfortable with these less easy emotions and allow ourselves to recognise and feel them too. And they don’t always just need ‘fixed’ – they need space to be expressed and felt and then we can look at a way to support and understand them.
- Step 3 – Support – before a solution, comes support – we can allow our child to feel the feeling and find ways to support themselves whilst doing so – a hug, a cup of tea, crunching an ice cube, jumping on the trampoline, walking the dog, crying, shouting into a pillow, running hands under cold water… we can let them explore and discover what helps with what. And never forgetting that the greatest support to a dysregulated nervous system is human connection, we can be there to support them, thereby building trust and strengthening our relationship in the process.
- Step 4 – Senses – beginning to put some language to the emotion – at first just encouraging our child or teen to connect to what they feel and being able to show or talk about that – putting a hand on a tight chest, rubbing a tummy filled with butterflies – maybe thinking about how big it feels, what shape it is or what colour comes to mind. Just feeling and beginning to link that to some language.
- Step 5 – Speak – thinking more about the words that best describe the feeling – using emojis to start a discussion, or an emotion wheel to dig deeper into feelings that can look like one thing on the surface but fit better with another word when we help them go a bit deeper. Having an emotion wheel visible at home so that everyone can use it to explore what they are feeling is a fabulous way to generate discussion and encourage curiosity around emotions for everyone in the family.
Using these steps doesn’t change the emotions our children will feel – it may actually mean that we see more of the difficult emotions, because when they have permission and a space to feel them, they may show up more easily.
But it will also means they begin to connect more with the emotions in their own body and also develop a way to think and talk about them, which goes a long way to developing self-regulation as well as healthy ways to support themselves in those moments when these feelings are uncomfortable. Which will certainly mean they don’t need to show up as much in ways that hurt themselves or others!
It also creates empathy as our child can then better understand how other people are feeling and offer a safe space for them too. And so the ripples of emotion regulation spread out, through families, peer groups, society and generations, creating more humans able to feel and process emotions more positively.
You can also read more about self regulation here.