Just like walking and talking, emotional control is not an ability that children are born with, but must learn.  Your child’s ability to control his emotions is influenced by three factors:

  • Temperament: your child’s personality, disposition, nature
  • Developmental status: your child’s age and maturity
  • Socialization: your child’s relationships, experiences and setting

You cannot change the first two, temperament and developmental status, but you can have a major impact on your child’s ability to control his/her emotions through the relationships, experiences and setting you provide for your child.

Here are some ways to help your child learn to control her emotions:

  • Provide as much stability and consistency as possible.
    Consistent limit and boundary-setting, clear rules and regular routines help your child know what to expect, which in turn, helps him feel more secure.  This security will help him develop the emotional skills to deal with the less predictable world outside the home.
  • Accept your child’s emotions and emotional responses.
    It’s important to remember that your child’s emotional outbursts, meltdowns and general behavior are not a deliberate attempt to make your life difficult.  Your ability to pay attention to and understand your child’s emotions will help her develop the skills to tolerate increasing amounts of emotional tension.
  • Talk about your own feelings.
    When you talk about your feelings, you’re modeling the use of the “language of feelings.” This will help your child use his words instead of his behavior to express himself.
  • Encourage your child to talk about his feelings.
    Remember that you are teaching your child to control her behavior, not her feelings.  Avoid directives such as “Don’t be sad” and instead use statements like “I see you are sad. Can you tell me what happened?”
  • Model emotional regulation.
    How do you handle your emotions? Do you fly off the handle easily or withdraw?  As your child learns to navigate his emotions, he will likely imitate your behavior.  You can help your child by verbalizing your feelings and sharing your strategies for dealing with your feelings.  Modeling the behavior you’d like from your child gives him a way to see how to do it. It’s also important to stay calm as your child’s emotions escalate.
  • Teach your child positive self-talk about the event.
    Teach your child a few simple phrases to remember, say to themselves or even say quietly out loud that calms her, helps her control herself, and puts the situation in perspective.  Examples include, “I can calm down,” “Everyone makes mistakes. I’ll do better next time,” “I’ll feel happier in a little while,” etc.
  • Identify typical situations which cause emotional outbursts and use them as springboards to teach problem solving.
    With your child, define what the problem is and how he is feeling in the situation.  Brainstorm and evaluate possible solutions.  Implement the solutions and determine how well it worked.
  • Help your child be aware of the stages in the build-up of tension.
    Watch for the early warning signs of an emotional outburst (grouchiness, sulking, etc) and intervene by encouraging your child to express her feelings.  Your understanding and concern at this stage can go a long way in reducing the escalation of tension. The other time to intervene is after the incident is over.  You can lead your child through problem solving by discussing the event, why it happened, how you each felt about the incident, the causes and early warning signals and alternative ways to solve the problem in the future.
  • Use time out for inappropriate emotional angry outbursts.
    Research has shown Time Out to be effective. Children want attention, even negative attention, so yelling at a child will reinforce bad behavior. Explain to your child what will result in a Time Out and what the process is. When putting your child in Time Out, it is important to do so matter-of-factly, without sympathy or anger.
  • Teach your child appropriate ways to express negative feelings.
    Teach your child that all emotions and feelings are okay, but there are different ways to express different feelings. Children should be taught to express their negative feelings in a way that is assertive but not hostile and that there is a difference between sticking up for themselves and intentionally hurting someone else.
  • Praise your child’s effort to control his emotions.
    Be sure to praise your child for handling his emotions without losing control of his behavior. Praising your child will help him change his self-image to someone who is able to handle his emotions.

Source: Helping Children Learn to Regulate Their Emotions, Carolyn Webster-Stratton, PhD, University of Washington