Emotional Regulation: The Springboard of Children’s Mental Health

When I was young, I couldn’t wait until my grandmother came to stay with us every summer. We sat in the garden for hours, laughing, talking and playing games. With her by my side, I felt that I could face anything. Her loving presence always helped to calm the storms of my childhood mind. Even now, years later, the mere thought of her brings peace to my soul and a smile to my face.

There’s a reason. My grandmother’s presence helped me to experience emotional regulation, the ability to feel calm in mind and body.

Emotional regulation is the springboard of mental health. Assisting children in developing this capacity helps them develop psychological resilience that serves them for years to come.

How can we help children develop this springboard? We start by paying careful attention to each child’s emotional needs.

Emotional regulation depends on responsive caregiving—that is, relationships in which children regularly experience connectedness and engagement. We know when toddlers have healthy connectedness to others and have learned to use the springboard because we observe these healthy results:

Ÿ* The child is relaxed and engaged with others.

Ÿ* The child easily signals the need for support or assistance from adults.

Ÿ * The child uses her primary relationships to recover from distress.

Infants and toddlers learn how to manage their emotions with help from caregivers until they can learn to calm themselves. This capacity is known as self-regulation, or as Dr. Stuart Shanker calls it, Self-Reg.  Loving and warmly engaged relationships allow a child to recover from stress, so when a child has difficulty seeking help, we need to ask why. Has the child experienced what it feels like to have an adult notice his distress and soothe him on a regular basis? Or is the child routinely left to recover from emotional distress on his own?

Sometimes it’s difficult to know whether to soothe a child or to set limits and overlook emotional outbursts.  For example, toddlers love to feel the power of independence while they try out new behaviors. A toddler who angrily throws a cup of milk on the floor, then looks to her mother for a reaction, or who yells, “That’s mine!” and then grabs his toy from a peer are both testing the limits of their power. These are common and expected toddler behaviors, and we can guide interactions with patience and reasonable limits provided within a warm and caring relationship.

But when children experience early challenges, logical parenting techniques can fall short. In these cases, we need to explore why the child is struggling emotionally. One common (but often overlooked) explanation for behavior difficulties is a challenge to the ability to maintain a calm state in the physical body—in other words, difficulty achieving emotional regulation.

Some children are born with challenges in their ability to maintain a calm state.  These children are often described as fussy, difficult or defiant.  We need to notice and soothe these children’s distress regularly.

Ironically, these are the kids who teachers tend to discipline the most often and the most harshly in school settings.  Difficulty in finding emotional calmness through the everyday storms of childhood experience is a signal that the child hasn’t learned to use the springboard yet. Here are a few factors that help build emotional regulation skills:

  1. Loving, caring, and warmly connected adults who notice children’s emotions in infancy and toddlerhood, and respond with empathy and compassion.
  2. Adults who help children put their experiences into perspective. For infants and young tots, this happens mostly nonverbally. For older children, it involves helping them describe their experience. Tina Bryson and Dan Siegel call this technique “name it to tame it”.
  3. Letting children know that it’s natural (and okay) to experience a range of emotions, both negative and positive. When we show them that our loving presence stays with them through the storm of emotions, it helps them accept that part of themselves and develop self-compassion.

When we “see” a child’s distress and avoid labeling it as a challenging behavior or excessive neediness, we help the child learn to use the springboard of relationships to develop emotional resilience, which is an essential foundation of mental health.

Join my newsletter at the top of the page for information about my upcoming book on solving childhood behavior challenges. I describe how to synchronize the principles of mental health with early intervention in my book for professionals working with children.