Emotional regulation in children and how to support your anxious child’s development.
Anxiety in children often shows up as anger, overwhelm and even over-excitement. It’s common for parents to mis-diagnose anxiety for problem behaviours. It’s important to begin this conversation with the simple truth that everyone at some point experiences anxiety. We all experience stress around trying new things. When something doesn’t go as planned, there’s an emotional response. Anxiety is the brain’s way of telling you that something here could be risky or that danger may be close. In short, anxiety is a normal and necessary part of our natural brain development and survival instincts.
This leads to the question, “Is my child anxious or am I seeing age-appropriate emotional regulation?” And sometimes the answer is both. Regulating our emotions will sometimes include a dose of anxiety.
There are some ways that we can differentiate between every day expected anxiety symptoms and when children need support. This is where we need to be observant and look for physiological factors. Children experiencing severe anxiety and in need of our support will exhibit physiological signs in addition to their behaviour. This may look like a reddened face, raised shoulders, clenched fist and deep breaths. If you notice your child’s entire body is exhibiting symptoms of anxiety, then you may consider getting support from a professional.
All children at some point will experience anxiety in their lives. Growing up is stressful. There will be triggers daily on your child’s developing brain. Below, I’ve broken this down into four simple steps for parents raising anxious children and supporting emotional regulation.
Co-regulating your anxious child.
What children need most is our support and understanding. Anxiety is a result of your child struggling to regulate those big emotions. When we look at the early developing brain we can see that children need our patience when it comes to regulating their emotions due to their under-developed prefrontal cortex. This is the area of the brain that regulates, reasons and practices self control. Compared to your adult brain, your child’s brain has an underdeveloped cortex. This is why children often need us to co-regulate for them. Because anxiety can look like problem behaviours it’s very common for parents and educators to mistranslate their child’s anxiety. This leaves children facing punishment, shame and other consequences when what they really need is coregulation support.
Phrases like the following are placing shame on children for experiencing natural and necessary anxiety.
“You shouldn’t be so angry all the time!”
“What’s wrong with you?”
“How dare you treat your brother like that.”
Often out of concern for safety for other children we use corrective language with our anxious children. It’s important to see beyond the behaviour and see the child’s needs in the moment. When we use over corrective language during an episode of anxiety, we are teaching children that their discomfort is not as important as the other person’s discomfort. Shaming children’s behaviour may quiet them for a time, but it is not delivering them the tools they need in order to be successful, resilient adults. Children that are defiant, aggressive and disobedient are the ones who need our support and co-regulation skills the most.
When a child’s anxiety interrupts their daily ability to learn and have fun then it may be time to introduce some support strategies. The following includes four steps for emotionally coaching your anxious child. Remembering that anger and overwhelm often appear the same as anxiety, we will be using these strategies with most children experiencing heightened emotions.
In health psychology a stressor is when the brain experiences something that it was not expecting. Interrupting the expectations of your brain can lead to a powerful emotional reaction in your mid brain. Due to your child’s underdeveloped cortex, their emotional brain often takes over their decision making. This can lead to clumsy, unreasonable behaviours. Which is why the first step in supporting an anxious child will always be to meet them where they are at emotionally.
Meeting your child where they are at emotionally comes when we practice a willingness to feel how they might be feeling in the moment. As adults, our logical brains are often found in solution mode. What we want most is to solve all of our children’s problems before they get hurt or experience discomfort such as failure. The issue here is that an emotional brain will often resist a logical brain. In order to bridge the barrier between their emotional, reactive brain and your logical, problem-solving brain you need to meet them where they’re at emotionally.
“I can see this is hard for you.”
“I’m sorry you’re so upset.”
“Would you like a cuddle when you’re calm?”
“I know you’re angry, and that’s okay.”
“It’s okay to be upset right now.”
“Sometimes I get upset too.”
By putting your child’s emotions before your need to solve their problem you will create and instant bridge between your brain and theirs. Building strong relationships with children comes when the adult practices a willingness to feel how their child feels before anything else.
Once you have started to bridge the gap between your brain and your child’s brain you are ready for step two. It’s time to help your child define their emotions. The brain is capable of calming itself down. Once we call out our feelings our brain will naturally become more receptive and regulation can kick in.
The key to supporting an anxious child is helping them define their own emotions in the moment.
“I can see that you’re upset. Can you tell me how you feel?”
“I think you might be sad because I can see you crying.”
“Maybe you’re angry because your face is red, and your shoulders are raised.”
We are describing what we see and allowing our child to agree or disagree gives their brain a window in which they can define their own feelings. Once your child has defined how they’re feeling you can begin asking guiding questions. Questions are a gentle way to open the brain to problem-solving. We spoke earlier of how an emotional brain is not in the place to solve a problem. Defining your child’s emotions activates the logical areas of the brain allowing them to regulate. We are finally in a place we can begin gentle reasoning.
There will be times when children take out their anxiety on other children. Once your child is beginning to regulate you can begin to address their behaviour and decisions. We do this through guiding questions. Remember that anxiety is natural and necessary for their young developing brains which means their behaviour is not necessarily intentional. Asking questions keeps your child open to solutions. As soon as we jump in with over-correction or consequences children will close off to our support.
Questions can begin as simple as…
“Can you tell me why you pushed your friend?”
“Can you tell me why you’re yelling at your friend?”
“Can you share with me what happened?”
Sometimes we can guess our child’s motivation behind their decisions, but it is still good to allow them the opportunity to explain themselves. Once your child is starting to become more reasonable and they’re in a position to explain why they did what they did this is a great opportunity to explore the feelings of others.
“Do you think your friend like being pushed? I can see that he’s crying.”
Again, we are keeping it simple and objective. Asking guiding questions and simply stating what you can see is the key to keeping your child open to your discipline. Explore empathy with your little one and allow them to come up with a compromise or a solution to their dilemma.
“Yes, I think you’re right, he is sad. What should we do next?”
While some children will come to a conclusion quickly and bounce back faster than others, it’s important to remember that not all kids will. Some children will require more support and longer conversations than others. If that is the case, then simply return to the format that we have explored here.
Step number one is practising a willingness to feel how they feel in the moment and create a bridge between your logical brain and their emotional one.
Step number two is to help your child define their inner feelings.
Step number three is to describe what you see and ask guiding questions around it.
Step number four is to allow your child to find their own solutions in the moment with your guidance.
Disruptive behaviours during early childhood are a result of your child navigating their emotional development and regulating their decision making. This is why the key to calmer, happier children (and parents!) is learning how to become your child’s emotional coach. Learn more about how simple and enjoyable this process can be.