How Parents Can Help Children With Emotional Regulation.

This is going to be an unconventional blog post. None of these are my ideas. Instead, they all come from Dr. Laura Markham and a podcast interview she did with Shane Parrish’s The Knowledge Project.

Dr. Markham is the author of several books, including Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting. Her website, Aha! Parenting is loaded with great resources.

What follows are simply the notes I took while listening to the interview. If you have time to listen to it (it’s 90 minutes long), that would be my first recommendation. If you don’t, this is about a 5-minute read. The episode is full of hypothetical and probably all-too-familiar examples of the challenges parents face helping kids with emotional regulation. Since emotional regulation is a critical component of executive function, this was of particular interest to me. What Dr. Markham had to say resonated with much of the parenting wisdom I’ve learned from our owner, Greg Smith, and it aligned with several of my older blog posts.

Here are my notes:

Parents’ modeling of their own emotional regulation is the #1 thing that teaches children how to self-regulate their emotions. Parents modeling constructive communication is the #1 thing that teaches children how to communicate in healthy, effective ways.

You might have fabulous emotional regulation and communication in nearly every situation other than those involving your kids because your kids are uniquely skilled at pushing your buttons and because there are probably no outcomes more important to you than the safety and success of your children. So this type of modeling is uniquely hard. The problem is not you – this is a universal problem.

She encourages parents to cultivate greater awareness of their own emotions and the bodily feelings associated with them – in other words, mindfulness – so that they can apply emotional management techniques before things get out of hand.

She also encourages parents to sort out what thoughts and beliefs are associated with the negative emotions you feel in difficult parenting situations, and then assessing those thoughts and beliefs for validity. Are they true? Are they helpful? Is there a more helpful mindset or belief system to adopt?

A phrase she uses over and over again is “There is no emergency.” Don’t react. Slow down. Don’t panic. Think it through. And then respond.

She wants parents to take ownership of their own emotions and actively work things out. Parents should neither be bullies nor pushovers. (This reminded me of finding the authoritative middle ground of parenting styles.) If they attack someone (e.g., the other parent), they should recognize this, own up to it, and apologize. Kids need to see this. And if they are attacked, they need to stand up for themselves in a constructive way. If kids don’t see this, they might come to believe it’s their responsibility to defend the parent who gets attacked, and that’s not a role kids should have to take on.

She discourages parents from telling children what the children are feeling. Telling a child, “You’re getting angry,” doesn’t help the child regulate his emotions; it makes him feel scrutinized and judged, which typically makes matters worse. Instead, she encourages parents to practice “emotion coaching.” This means accepting rather than denying or minimizing the child’s emotions, helping the child understand and explain their emotions, and helping the child consider a variety of responses. It doesn’t mean jumping in with solutions. Instead, emotions coaching is largely about listening with empathy, curiosity, and unconditional love, even when the person the child is upset with is you.

In their discussion of kids learning to take responsibility for their actions and their choices, she discusses scaffolding, something we covered in our executive function article, and she talks about not rescuing kids when they forget something or allow themselves to be unprepared. She points out that if you’re always helping your kids remember things, they’ll simply rely on you for reminders and never learn to set up their way of remembering. This reminded me of the broader discussion we had about overparenting.

Whenever a screw up happens, the culture of the household needs to be focused on solutions rather than blame. The child will probably try to blame you or blame someone else or blame any factor other than themselves for the screw up. When that happens, instead of arguing with the child and telling them that it’s their fault, just name all the factors that you can and fully articulate the situation that happened, including the child’s role, and let them consider what part of it they actually have responsibility for without telling them what that part is. They may or may not realize it. Either way, then you go to “what are you going to do about it?” or “what can we do about it?” Perhaps you can work together to set up a system that makes this type of screw up less likely in the future.

That’s all. A big thanks to Shane Parrish of Farnam Street for creating this podcast and to Dr. Laura Markham for sharing this wisdom.

About the Author

Chris Loper has been an academic coach for Northwest Educational Services since 2014. He also writes the popular self-improvement blog Becoming Better, so if you liked this article, head on over to becomingbetter.org and check out his other work. Chris also offers behavioral change coachinghelping busy adults with habit formation and productivity. He lives in Seattle, WA.

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