"Why Does Johnny Continue to Act This Way?"

Helping children regulate their emotions.

Parents often ask, “Why does he continue to act this way—to tease or hit his sister, to refuse to do his homework or clean up his room, to lie when we know that he is lying and he knows that he will be punished?” Many parents (and some child therapists) assume that, in these situations, they have not been consistent enough in setting limits or imposing consequences for their child’s bad behavior.

But the correct answer is almost always, “He behaves this way because he is caught up in the emotion of the moment.” As we all are, at times.

Among child psychologists, a consensus has emerged. A child’s increasing ability to “regulate” her emotions—to control and channel her expression of emotions, to express her feelings in constructive rather than hurtful ways—is now recognized as a critical factor in children’s psychological health. Improved emotion regulation leads to benefits in all areas of a child’s life—increased attention to tasks, less disruptive behavior, better ability to resolve conflicts with peers, and lower levels of psychological and physical stress.

Emotion regulation is an important idea with an unfortunate name. When we help children develop improved emotion regulation, we do not simply help them turn down the dial on their feelings or learn better anger management. (Yes, at times we will need to teach them—and to insist—that if they want to speak with us about a problem, they must speak to us calmly.) But emotion regulation is much more than anger management.

Children learn to express their emotions in constructive ways when they are confident that their feelings will be heard. When a child expects that her concerns will be appreciated and understood, her emotions become less urgent. Because each frustration and each disappointment now feels less painful, less “catastrophic,” she will be less insistent in her demands, and more open and flexible in seeking solutions to problems. She will less often get stuck in attitudes of blaming, argument, and denial. She will be more able to feel empathy and concern for others, and to take responsibility for her actions.

Children who are able to regulate their emotions will also behave well (most of the time). They will more easily make and keep friends, and they will work harder and achieve more in school.

Consider the case of Julia.

Several years ago, Mr. and Mrs. B consulted me about their six-year-old daughter, Julia. During the past year, the life of this young family had been complicated by serious medical difficulties and economic stress. Now, when Julia came home from school, at the first disappointment of the afternoon, as soon as either of her parents was unable to provide her with undivided attention, Julia began to scream—insistent, relentless screaming.

Julia’s screaming had reduced her intelligent and thoughtful parents to tears. Mr. and Mrs. B had lost patience with their daughter; their statements and tone with her had become increasingly harsh and punitive. Nothing had helped—ignoring her cries, offering rewards, or imposing “time-out” or more severe punishments. Mr. and Mrs. B sensed that these efforts had only made the situation worse, and they began to doubt their competence as parents.

I suggested to Julia’s parents that they enlist Julia in the solution of this problem: to ask her that evening, in a calm moment, perhaps as they were putting her to bed, to tell them about the things that upset her, during the school day and at home. And then, to ask Julia for her ideas—what her parents could say or do to help her when she was upset. This way of talking with children is almost always helpful, even when the solutions kids offer are wildly unrealistic or unacceptable. Julia’s parents were able to encourage their daughter, at least for that moment, to think differently—not about making a protest or a demand, but about how to solve an emotional problem.

But I did not anticipate the profound nature of Julia’s answer. Julia did not say, “Give me more attention” or “Buy me a toy.” Instead, she told her parents, “Tell me there will be a next time.”

Julia’s parents accepted their daughter’s very reasonable suggestion. They began to help Julia anticipate and preview other times when she might begin to feel anxious or angry; they talked together about what Julia could do when her parents were not immediately available to help or comfort her; and they planned special activities that Julia could look forward to, writing them on the calendar.

In this way, Julia learned to manage moments of frustration and disappointment. Her emotional crises soon ended and a family atmosphere of escalating anger and defiance gave way to renewed playfulness and emotional support.

Julia also seemed to “internalize” these discussions; when Mrs. B was upset, Julia would console her, “Mommy, it’s okay, tomorrow you’ll feel better.”

I welcome your comments and questions. I will respond as quickly and as often as I can.

(Originally published on PsychologyToday.com)

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