How parents respond to emotional displays like tantrums, kicking, hitting, smashing, and yelling is important for building children’s ability to control their emotions. Controlling emotions, and particularly the ability to calm down, is important for sleep. The first step in emotion management is to learn to interpret emotions as discussed in the previous post. In this post, we discuss the second step…
Emotion Management Step 2: Coping with emotions
Parents who are more responsive to their children’s distress tend to have children who are better able to cope with their negative emotions (1). More responsive parents in this study were those who rated themselves more likely to respond to their child’s distress by focusing on the emotion, focusing on the problem, showing empathy, perspective taking, or encouraging the child to express their emotion or talk about the situation; and less likely to punish, express distress themselves, or minimise the emotion (e.g. “It’s nothing. Get over it.”).
As a parent, your response helps to communicate and model how your child can cope with their emotions. However, if the only response from parents is to fix the problem, the only coping method children are likely to learn is to enlist parental help. This could cause obvious issues at sleep time and when adult help is unavailable.
Calkins (2) observed mothers playing with their 18 month olds in a series of tasks. They also observed how much distress those 18 month olds showed in frustrating tasks where their mother was asked not to interact. Mothers who more frequently intervened by doing things for their child such as fitting a puzzle piece, or inserting a block during playtime, had children who showed greater distress during frustrating tasks. Mothers who more often gave positive guidance during play, had children who used more adaptive coping styles, such as distraction, during frustrating tasks. These results demonstrate correlation. It is possible that children highly prone to distress, elicit more intervention from parents. However, it seems more likely that children who are used to having things done for them get more frustrated when help is unavailable. In contrast, parents who provide positive guidance suggest coping strategies that their children can later implement independently (See Grolnick 1998 (3) for similar results in regards to emotional reactions to waiting).
I have seen this in my own responses to my 2 year old’s frustration. He often gets frustrated with his floor puzzle. Sometimes I think he’s too tired, so I suggest he pack it away. Sometimes he’s just been working at it for a very long time and one piece is frustrating him, so I suggest he play with something else until he calms down. Sometimes he’s been working at it for ages and something breaks it. Often at this point I’ll intervene and redo what he’s done. I have since seen him use all these strategies independently to deal with his frustration.
Emotion management and sleep
Babies experience many feelings that are relevant to sleep, such as impatience, tiredness, separation anxiety, and even anger that the caregiver left the room. Independent ways of dealing with all these emotions can be modelled during the day when everyone isn’t too tired.
So in practice…
There are a few principles to follow:
1. React to the situation from an adult’s perspective rather than mirroring your child’s emotional response (based on observations from this post and the previous post).
2. Don’t fix the pain. Do hug them, sympathise with them, and generally show that you care and understand. Just don’t do something that they couldn’t do themselves, like shorten the wait, replace a lost item, or always stay in sight.
3. Help your child with coping strategies that they can perform. Things like quiet time with a comfort toy and book (if your child is into books).
4. When you feel that emotion yourself, model coping strategies that you would like your child to use.
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For more research-based information on emotional regulation, and self regulation more generally see “The Most Important Skill to Teach Children” from Developmental Psychologist, Ashley from Nurture and Thrive Blog.
- Davidov MJE. Untangling the Links of Parental Responsiveness to Distress and Warmth to Child Outcomes. Child Development. 2006;77(1):44-58.
- Calkins SD, Johnson MC. Toddler regulation of distress to frustrating events: temperamental and maternal correlates. Infant Behavior and Development. 1998;21(3):379-95.
- Grolnick WS, Kurowski CO, McMenamy JM, Rivkin I, Bridges LJ. Mothers’ strategies for regulating their toddlers’ distress. Infant Behavior and Development. 1998;21(3):437-50.