Can you teach emotional regulation?
Regular tantrums could be a sign that your child is having trouble controlling his emotions. Here’s what might help.
When your child throws a tantrum, whether at home or in public, it can be surprising and disorienting to witness the anger or rage of a little human being. And when these temper tantrums start to repeat themselves, it can be concerning.
You wouldn’t be the only one wondering what’s causing these outbursts, if you’re reacting to them correctly, or if there’s anything else you could do to help your child.
Anger management techniques, when age-appropriate — which focus on emotional regulation — can help.
Your child could be angry or act aggressively for many reasons.
“Children are human beings having a human experience, just like adults,” says Brandi Garza, a Dallas counselor who regularly works with children. Unlike adults, children don’t have decades of experience managing their emotions.
When they get angry, it’s easy for that emotion to take over and turn into a tantrum.
“The frontal lobe of their brain is really half the size of a fully mature adult,” Garza explains. “That means their impulsiveness, their decision-making, their ability to rationalize and make logical, informed decisions is next to impossible.”
All feelings, not just anger, are strong in childhood.
“Strong feelings are caused by a child needing to express their emotions to feel better,” says Gayle Weill, an Alma social worker who practices in Connecticut and New York.
Although anger in and of itself is not a “bad” emotion, it can be a sign that something else is going on, especially if you notice your child becoming more angry or aggressive than usual.
Here are some things that could cause outbursts of anger that may warrant intervention:
Research suggests that bullying can have a wide range of impacts on children, including making children more likely to develop:
Behavior modeled at home
If a child sees adults arguing and fighting, they may copy that behavior, especially if exposed to anger and fighting as they learn to speak.
Babies tend to feel stressed after witnessing an argument, leading to increased moodiness or sleep problems.
Once they become toddlers and begin to develop language skills, they may begin to imitate the language, communication styles, and tone of voice of the adults in their lives. They may also find it difficult to calmly express their feelings.
A 2015 study posits that this happens because family discord can alter how children’s brains process emotions.
Abuse and Trauma
Several studies have also shown that emotional and physical abuse can cause children to develop psychological symptoms, including a tendency towards anger and aggressive behavior.
Traumatic experiences can also have similar impacts.
Mental health problems
Anger and aggression can also be symptoms of certain mental health conditions, including:
Appropriate emotional regulation strategies appear to differ across age groups. Here are some examples of what might work for each age group:
“If a preschooler yells and throws toys, it should be seen as a way for the child to express big feelings,” Weill says. “[They] cannot articulate with words like an older child can.
It may be wise to model emotional regulation. In other words, try to respond with patience, empathy, and understanding. This will help them feel safe.
Then you can try to show them how to calm down through your own actions. You could try to:
- Change your child’s environment. Change their environment to make it more calming for them.
- Communicate your feelings to your child. Think about what you see your child doing and tell them about it. For example, you might say, “I see you clenching your fists, I wonder if you’re angry? It helps your child to name what they are feeling.
- Ask them questions to help defuse. For example, you might say, “Can you tell me in your own words how you feel?” to help them understand what you want them to do.
- Count to 10 with them. Counting and taking slow, deep breaths together can have a calming effect.
- Play educational games with them. Play apps or games with them that teach emotional recognition or emotional management.
For primary school children
Now children have more vocabulary to name what they feel, but you still play an important role in helping them continue to develop these skills. Garza says, “Reflecting or reframing perceived behavior or feeling is [still] incredibly powerful.
“Once a child seems to start calming down naturally — or perhaps by encouraging them to breathe — ask them if they want to talk,” Garza adds.
Also consider teaching them coping skills or problem-solving skills to avoid tantrums, such as:
- drawing their feelings of anger
- read books about calm
- learn the triggers and use warnings or countdowns to help them prepare for the trigger
- dead time or “reflection time”
- praise them when they calm down or manage their emotions appropriately
Hormonal changes common in adolescence can make some teenagers prone to anger.
“Teenagers and tweens go through a lot physically and emotionally,” Weill says. “They are going through a developmental phase where they need to feel a certain level of independence while knowing that they have adults in their lives that they can rely on.”
That’s why it’s important for the adults in their lives to continue to validate and listen to their feelings.
“If a teen feels understood, validated, and heard, they’ll be more open to learning skills to manage their feelings,” Weill says. “They also need to learn how to recognize what their feelings are before they react to them, and how to calm themselves down so they can better regulate how they feel.”
With this age group, physical exercise, deep breathing, and meditation are often effective tools for managing emotions.
In addition to the at-home techniques mentioned above, there are a few other things you can try more generally to help your child deal better with anger or other strong emotions.
Authoritative parenting can help your child develop emotional regulation skills. It’s a style of parenting that nurtures and supports while setting firm boundaries and expectations.
An authoritative parent will listen to a child’s feelings, validate their disappointment, and enforce fair discipline and rules.
For example, if a child throws a tantrum in a park because he doesn’t want to leave to pick up his sister from dance class.
An authoritative parent might:
- Validate his feelings. This might involve saying something like, “I know you’re having a great time and you’re disappointed that we have to leave soon.
- Let them know beforehand. Tell their child in advance what time they need to leave, then give them warnings or countdowns to prepare.
- Respect the departure time. Do this even when the child pleads for 5 more minutes or breaks down.
Mindful parenting also works well alongside authoritative parenting or as its own parenting philosophy. This style is characterized by parents being fully in the moment with their children to truly understand their child and their actions.
Children’s anger management works best with consistent reinforcement from everyone, not just their parents. Teachers, family, peers, and mental health professionals can all be part of this external reinforcement.
Some children might benefit from attending support groups, for example, where they can meet other children who have similar problems regulating their emotions. These groups can help children learn coping skills from peers and group moderators.
Others might benefit from seeing a therapist individually or having family therapy with their parents. Some popular therapies include:
When your child gets angry or throws a tantrum, it can be stressful and, at times, scary.
But there are ways to help your child learn to better control their emotions, so they’re less likely to be aggressive.
While at-home strategies like behavior modeling can help, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, it may be helpful for your child to attend a support group or get help from a therapist.