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Teaching Emotional Regulation: Strategies for Parents

Updated: May 31

Emotional Regulation
Photo by Amy Humphries on Unsplash

A common theme among many of the referrals we receive, whether that is for therapy, testing, or psychiatry, is centered around challenges with emotional regulation. Many factors influence a person’s ability to manage their emotions. As adults, we know that this can be difficult for various reasons. For children, it can be even more challenging since their brains are not fully developed yet. The prefrontal cortex, an important part of the brain that allows us to make good decisions and use problem solving skills, is the last part of the brain to fully develop. Instead, children are relying on the amygdala. Despite its small size, the amygdala plays a crucial role in the brain and it is a major processing center for emotions. At times, however, the amygdala can be overwhelmed with emotions and the instincts of fight, flight, or freeze are likely to kick in. In those moments, the brain is communicating that there is a threat. While being on the lookout for danger is an important survival mechanism, the brain can misinterpret situations, and therefore our body can have a similar physiological reaction during non-life threatening situations. For more information on this important topic, check out this recent article, Understanding the stress response, in Harvard Health Publishing. 

Effective emotional regulation leads to improved mental health. As parents, you play a vital role in helping your children develop these crucial skills. In recognition of Mental Health Awareness month, we wanted to share a list of recommendations that can be implemented at home. When your child is better able to regulate their emotions, this will have a positive impact on not only your child’s mental health, but the mental health of other family members, and the wellbeing of the family unit as a whole. While not an exhaustive list, these ideas can serve as a starting point:

  1. Children will function best in a home environment with a predictable structure and routine. As such, it is important to maintain clear structure, routine, rules, and reasonable expectations at home. Any significant changes to a routine should be discussed with your child as well in advance as possible. Such explicit expectations can provide predictability and a feeling of control over the situation, which in turn can support your child’s development of emotional regulation.

  2. Try to keep your voice and actions calm and soothing when your child is overwhelmed or upset. Your calm interactions with your child can communicate that there is not a threat or danger that warrants that level of arousal. Parents can interpret these behaviors as a signal that your child is currently experiencing difficulty coping with demands and provide a choice to utilize coping strategies.

  3. It is helpful for parents to model appropriate emotional modulation by providing feedback to problematic situations, phrased in a positive manner. When your child is calm, you might talk through a situation out loud that provokes feelings of anger or frustration and explain how you will deal with your feelings in a healthy way. Encouraging open communication after a disagreement and involving your child in the problem solving process may in turn facilitate better emotional modulation.

  4. Because so much of life gets organized around a child’s negative feelings or behaviors, it is important to build time into each day during which your child can have undivided positive attention from a caregiver and can exert some control. It would help for you to find 10 minutes each day to spend alone with your child, doing whatever they would like to do. Your child should choose the activities, and you should simply follow your child’s  lead, offering no direction/leads or criticism/corrections (unless there is a significant safety issue). This time should simply be a time for your child to be themself, while you sit comfortably joined with them. Very small amounts of time each day (e.g., 10 minutes), when they occur consistently, can significantly improve a child’s sense of mastery, self esteem, and control.

  5. Your child’s anxiety may manifest as physical symptoms. If your child engages in avoidance strategies to help decrease that anxiety, you are encouraged to provide empathy, validate emotions, and acknowledge how difficult it may be to engage in something that is fearful. At the same time, your child should be encouraged to face anxiety producing situations and not avoid, as avoidance will only increase anxiety. 

  6. Positive attention and praise from caregivers helps promote the frequency of desired behaviors and increases your child’s self-confidence. 

  7. Emphasize and reward the process instead of the end product. Structure consequences, both positive and negative, on the effort. This can help increase your child’s feelings of effectiveness as well as their overall emotional well-being.

  8. Identify your child’s strengths, abilities, and passions. Encourage those qualities to build self-esteem. It is important to be specific about what behaviors you admire and share this information consistently with your child.

  9. It would be helpful for your child to participate in positive, enjoyable extracurricular activities on a regular basis. These activities can help to improve your child’s mood and increase feelings of self-efficacy. You are encouraged to help your child maintain a healthy balance of participating in extracurricular activities as well as scheduling downtime so that your child can relax and recharge.

  10. Children and adolescents with depression can be socially withdrawn and spend much time to themselves. If this applies to your child, talk with them about activities they would enjoy doing with your family. Try to follow their lead and suggest activities that are related to their areas of interest.

  11. When developmentally appropriate, your child is likely to benefit from verbal mediation. Verbal mediation can be a useful tool for helping children and adolescents focus on their own behavior. Your child might benefit from talking through a task or an upcoming social situation, as this can increase attention to the situational demands and, secondarily, awareness of demands on their own behavior. Model, cue, and encourage goal setting (What do I want to accomplish?) and planning (What might work? What might not work?) as self-monitoring tools.

  12. Your child is encouraged to maintain healthy sleep habits, good nutrition, and adequate exercise. These daily health habits are crucial for health and wellness and have been linked to emotional and behavioral regulation.

a. The CDC has information about the daily recommended hours of sleep for your child,

depending on their age, which can be found here.

b. It is also recommended that your child or teen participate in at least an hour of daily exercise/active movement.

c. Healthy foods and good nutrition will help your child perform at their best. 

If your child continues to struggle with emotional regulation on a regular basis and you feel that more support is needed, please reach out to us at or call us at 703-942-9745 to learn more about our consultation and therapy services. 

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