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  • Writer's picturerabbitmum

Fostering Emotional Regulation in Your Family

Updated: May 16, 2019

Children learn to emotionally regulate through their parents' ability to regulate themselves and their children. Dr Amy Reale, a Clinical & School Psychologist, was invited to my son's school to speak about the importance of emotional regulation to mental wellness, the tools, the roles of unstructured play and structured time, and tips for parents to regulate themselves.

What does that mean?

Emotional regulation is capacity to manage emotion: adapting, modulating, flexibility, thinking, empathy, and self-awareness.

Why is it important?

Research says inability to regulate emotion may cause mental health disorders.

Having emotional regulation helps us in problem solving, decision making, attention &

concentration, impulse control, and following instructions/rules.

Most of the times, kids know exactly the rules and right and wrong. The reason why they don’t follow the rules is because of emotional dysregulation.

When we have emotional regulation, we can do well in friendships, family, extracurricular activities, academic performance, and activities of daily living.

It is normal for kids to not play fairly, to cheat, to get angry when they lose in the game, show tantrum being defeated, and to push limits. It is normal and healthy. It is part of their development. They have to experience this to be able to modulate emotions. So that when they become an adult, they know how to do it.

Where do parents sit in this Emotion Regulation?

Parents have a role as a teacher, model, and apparatus.

Parents serve as apparatus regulatory for kids.

Research on Emotional Regulation

Children are born with the capacity to read sequences of nonverbal cues in others.

Parent and child system is made up of predictions and sequences of nonverbal cues.

Nonverbal cues: vocal tones, spatial orientation, gaze, touch, affective expressions.

Respond in line with the child’s cues.

Use our nonverbal skills to communicate calm and predictability.

Common traps / mistakes parents often make

We focus on behaviour and punishment – and start to ignore the cues.

We say things like:

  • “This is unacceptable behaviour”

  • “I was never allowed to act like this as a child”

  • “We need to teach right and wrong”

  • “I can’t allow my child to treat me like this”

  • “If he acts like this now, how will he be as a teenager?”

When kids are angry and test parents' patience / limits, parents often say the common traps (I do! especially the first one - "this is unacceptable behaviour"). Often, above sentences make kids even more upset and then parents follow by saying "That's it. You are punished". Kids get even more frustated. Things get out of control.


If the kids know how to regulate their emotions, they would not talk back. Most kids actually do know right and wrong. They are aware of the rules.


  1. Repeat what was said / wanted by your child. This helps him/her to know that we know / understand.

  2. Try to pick up what they are feeling. This helps them to understand about feeling. You can state their feeling (for example: I know you are angry). Even if they reject your statement, they will still learn what a feeling is.

  3. Apologizing. You are not apologizing for setting the limit but for acknowledging that the limit make them upset. It is important that parents keep the limit, keep the value, and not adjusting them after seeing their children being angry about it or can’t accept the limit set-up.

  4. If the child is too distressed, the focus / goal is to calm him/her down.

  5. After they calm down, talk to them. How do make you feel better? We go to problem solving together. Find some way that they can feel like they have a room or have a say.

  6. Ask questions, offer suggestions and explanations. This is the teaching time, but can only be done when the kid is calm and open to listen.

Sometimes, emotional dysregulation is related to anxiety… anxious / worried about something.


Unstructured play (creative and improvised with no set goal and unlimited possibilities) has a lot of ties with emotional regulation. It helps to build these much needed skills:

  • Problem solving & decision making

  • Emotional management & feeling awareness

  • Self-control

  • Abstract thinking

  • Limits & boundaries

  • Communication

  • Conflict management

  • Creativity

  • Theory of mind

Other gains of having unstructured play includes outlets for stress, self-direction, exercise, social supports, joy, and self-care. It is important to have unstructured play to regulate emotions.

Parent’s role in unstructured play

  • Repeat what the child has said

  • Verbalize what the child is thinking

  • Label emotion

  • Ask questions to expand the play

  • Notice when you are intruding. A lot of time, kids don’t want parents to play with them, but just want you to be near them and to comment.

C's agreed schedule when he was 4.5 year old


This helps them with predictability and feeling safe.

  • Plan schedule together. Let them have some say on the schedule. Help them to learn about scheduling, time management, and planning.

  • Reasonable demands

  • Ensure sufficient time

  • Allow unstructured play time

  • Visual schedule

  • Look for skills deficit

Key components: Parent Regulation

The more predictable a parent, the more predictable a child

The more predictable the dyad (parents-kids as a group), the more secure the attachment

We can only model, teach, and be part of the regulatory system when we are regulated

If a child feel safe, feel attached, more secure, feel their parents understand them and able to read their cues, as well as more predictable, it is better for the child’s emotional regulation, thus less mental illness / mental health problems.

Tips for self-regulation

  • Notice your own thoughts

  • Notice your own feelings


  • Question yourself: why am I feeling this way? Does this remind me of anything? Why is this so triggering for me? Most of the time, the trigger is our own childhood. Is my feeling a reflection of my child’s? Am I making any thinking errors? Are my expectations realistic? Am I being rigid? Am I avoiding my child’s feeling and my own?

  • Challenge your own thinking

  • Distance yourself from thinking

  • Try to have more balanced thinking

  • Act in line with your values

It is certainly not easy things to do but it is important to foster emotional regulation in your family, not only for our children's mental health but also ourselves'.

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