In almost every study of child development, one factor pops up again and again- the importance of regulating children’s distress. We all have negative emotions such as sadness, loneliness, feeling rejected, anger, boredom, shame, and guilt. Negative emotions serve an important function. They are signals to ourselves and to others that we are in a difficult situation and need to ramp up resources and act in ways that help us to deal effectively with the difficulty. For children this will mean activation of both physiologic stress systems, and of the behaviors that signal their distress to their parents.
When a child is distressed, the child’s behaviors are aimed at:
- Communicating the child’s distress to a parent;
- Engaging their parent to help relieve the the child’s distress;
- Engaging their parent to calm the child’s emotions down.
- Managing the distress on their own to whatever extent the child can
All of us, even children can tolerate negative emotion as long as it returns back to a state of equilibrium. When children are not helped to regulate these negative emotions, their physiologic stress alarm system stays ON. Their distressing emotions and the accompanying behaviors also stay ON.
This is why unregulated negative emotions are so harmful to children:
- It can harm their nervous system and physical health.
- It can leave them in an alarmist or pessamistic state of mind.
- It can leave them with disruptive and inappropriate behaviors that will impair their social relationships.
The parent regulates the child by reliably calming and soothing the child; and when appropriate providing adaptive coping strategies. Because children are such mimics and imitators, eventually the parent’s style of regulation is internalized by the child and becomes the child’s style of self-regulation. Regulating a child’s negative emotions in an adaptive way should be one of the highest priorities of parenting. Regulation the child is a combination of soothing and calming, but also of the parent teaching the child how to cope.
There is a big menu of coping strategy options. Here are a few:
- Cognitive skills such as, recognizing and labeling the feelings; not judging the feelings; remembering that feelings are temporary, not permanent; remembering feelings are feelings not facts or truths
- Emotional skills such as knowing you are not alone, knowing your feelings are normal, taking a deep breath or listening to music; taking a ‘time out’ if the situation is over stimulating; knowing that it’s OK to feel the feeling but that you don’t have to act on the feeling, or that you can use a more adaptive action, such as communicating in words rather than behaviors
- Social skills such as setting boundaries with other people, knowing how to express feelings in ways that other’s can understand, knowing it’s OK to turn to others for help; knowing who will be a reliable helper
- Reflective mental skills, such as understanding other people’s feelings, intentions, and beliefs; using visual imagery to feel calmer or to help feel stronger and more competent.