Emotional regulation can be difficult for adults, but children and adolescents in particular are still developing the ability to foster emotional awareness, recognition, and regulation. Without appropriate guides and emotional role models, children become teens and adults struggling with handling life’s most difficult emotions. Coupled with the social and cultural pressure of appearing strong or suppressing sad and vulnerable feelings for male children in particular, it is no surprise that many individuals are ruled by emotion. This can be particularly toxic and dangerous for children who experience trauma.
Just like any other form of learning, pro-social learning and emotional intelligence take practice and integration into our family dynamics and school curriculums. It is simply not enough to say that we need to address mental health issues to prevent violence without a plan to address the social, psychological, and cultural factors that contribute to mental health. While mental illness and violence are not synonymous terms, a proper mental health education must encompass emotional regulation and recognition of the full spectrum of emotions-including sadness, fear, and anger. Practicing empathy, gratitude, and healthy coping can facilitate long-term changes in our care for ourselves and our care for others.
Some simple things we can do to foster emotional awareness in children is to talk about our own feelings. For example, “I feel so relieved to hear that no one was hurt in the accident. They must have been so afraid!” Admitting your own difficult feelings normalizes the experience. Identifying feeling afraid, scared, angry, disappointed, disgusted, shame, jealous, anxious, happy, or all of the above can help children learn that we all feel all emotions. It can be helpful to add a simple statement like, “My body is just letting me know this is important to me, so I feel nervous inside.”
Identifying how characters in books and movies feel or react can facilitate teaching conversations as well. Most villains in children’s books and movies have suppressed negative emotions or experiences! This can be an excellent conversation starter with children as well. What could the villain do differently to prevent making these bad choices? What coping skills does he or she need? What would you do in the villain's shoes? What if we extend compassion and empathy for the villain and talk about times we felt THAT ANGRY/scared, too? What did he/she lack? What could he/she learn? What could he/she/they do differently?
Using a visual like a thermometer is a common practice in emotional identification as well. Usually, hot is associated with anger and a high temp would equate a high anger level. Teaching children and adults cool off methods like deep breathing, counting to ten, or walking can be quick, easy, and free! In the same vein, identifying physical feelings can be more comfortable for many people, making it a safer place to start with feelings identification. We want children to generalize these behaviors and approaching it too rigidly can turn them off from the practice.
There are many excellent articles, websites, books, models, and videos on these topics. We’ll start with a few here:
Here are some useful parenting tips for developing emotional regulation.
Check out this important perspective on fostering emotional diversity in boys.
Here is a perspective called Non-violent communication that can be an interesting place to begin as well.
Gruber, J. , Borelli, J. (2017). The Importance of Fostering Emotional Diversity in Boys. Scientific American. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-importance-of-fostering-emotional-diversity-in-boys/.