Emotional Regulation and Highly Sensitive Children

A parent wants the best for their children and we do our best to provide the right environment, support and activities to set them up for a good future. We read books, we listen to podcasts or YouTube, we learn about their different temperaments and personalities to inform our approaches. Those who have children who feel deeply or are emotionally driven, we have learned need a bit more nurturing. Taking context clues and learning from us, their parents, child care professionals, and peers, children are highly susceptible to learning similar behavioral tones to the ones they see around them. Research shows children do better in school with better emotional regulation. In addition, the earlier parents or child care professionals teach their children to emotionally connect, the better. There is also a path for highly sensitive children on the other side of emotional connection; they feel in extremes.

Learning how to understand their emotions, children are set up for success when it comes to unpacking trauma or going through a difficult event which could affect their lives. Aside from natural temperament, hunger, mood, and the environment they grow up in, emotional children can be sensitive while expressing their emotions.  In addition, it can make them more creative, aware, and open. While these things may be true for most children, highly sensitive children often can experience overwhelmed feelings, an intense need for control, overstimulation, stress, fatigue, and self-conscious behavior. In situations like this, children can benefit from emotional regulation.

“Emotion regulation calls on so many skills, including attention, planning, cognitive development, and language development,” said Pamela Cole, PhD, a psychologist at Penn State University who studies emotion regulation in early childhood. “When things are calm, find opportunities to talk about feelings and strategies for managing [their emotions].”

Mother comforting his son

How You Can Help

On a daily basis, you and your child go through a number of emotions. Making faces and talking through how you’re feeling and how your child is feeling can better set them up for successful emotional regulation. While reading or meal time, asking emotion based questions on their internal dialogue can better accelerate their understanding through talking and teaching. For highly sensitive children, gentle discipline, setting expectations, and coaching like with emotional regulation, can benefit the child in the long run.

“When things are calm, find opportunities to talk about feelings and strategies for managing them,” Cole said. “It won’t all sink in during one conversation, but you can lay the groundwork.”

Model the emotional regulation yourself so your child can see how to properly handle a tough situation. This allows the child to see how to avoid an impulsive reaction. The saying, “do as I say, not as I do,” is proven to be wrong, said Alan Kazdin, PhD, a psychologist at Yale University and director of the Yale Parenting Center. Using this method of modeling good behavior can increase your child’s ability to socialize and understand others.

“It’s really important for parents, grandparents, teachers, and other caregivers to work together to address a child’s self-regulation problems,” said John Lochman, PhD, ABPP, a psychologist at the University of Alabama who studies programs to prevent aggression in high-risk children.. “Sit down to chat and plan a coordinated approach to handling the child’s behaviors.”

Punish Less, Praise More

Parenting is tough enough already and while there are times you might feel punishment could be a positive, it is almost certainly not the case. It’s the use of parents’ minimal use of coercive, hostile, and rejecting parenting behaviors, resulting in happier and healthier children. With highly sensitive children, having patience when it comes to the child’s emotional reactiveness, processes, and discipline are major factors in helping the child regulate their emotions.

“When parenting is harsh, children who have trouble managing their emotions tend to react by becoming more aggressive,” Lochman said. “The research shows that you should have four or five positive interactions for each negative reprimand.”

mother doing high five with kid
Mother sitting with daughter while holding her hands.

Be Patient

These skills seem like they’re second nature to adults, but for children, emotional regulation takes time. In stressful or anxious situations, children tend to ignore the emotional regulation they would utilize in a low-stakes situation. It’s helpful to remember we all need extra attention and words of encouragement when the situation calls for it, especially with children.

Debriefing the day and talking about how situations might have felt in the moment or during a moment of reflection is a crucial part of encouraging emotional support from the caregiver to the child. In conjunction with patience, children who have a trusting relationship with their parents and/or caregivers have better emotional intelligence. Even roleplaying, mirroring facial expressions, and sensory play can be beneficial in children practicing emotional regulation.

“We approach self-regulation skills in the same way we approach other skills, academic or social: isolate that skill and provide practice,” said Scott Bezsylko, the executive director of the Winston Prep schools for children with learning differences. “When you think of it as a skill to be taught — rather than, say, just bad behavior — it changes the tone and content of the feedback you give kids. ”

We Can All Learn Together

Parenthood isn’t easy, in fact, anyone can tell you about a time their parent or caregiver became frustrated due to a child’s behavior. As Care Professionals, we need to practice mindfulness, meditation, deep breathing, and other forms of self regulation for our children to learn from.

“When kids are part of an environment that’s reflective and analytic as opposed to emotional and fast-paced,” Bezsylko explains, “they can learn to make better choices.” Slowing down allows children to become more thoughtful, reflective and self-aware. “We need to slow down and model self-reflection and self-awareness and self-regulation for our kids,” he notes, “but it’s also helpful and good for us, too.”

In addition, there are parental training programs and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) for older or teenage children as it focuses on distress tolerance and emotion regulation. In Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT), parents learn how to manage their emotions and how to use praise and effective consequences when parenting their deeply feeling child. 

There are many networks, programs, and resources available for parents to reference when going through how to adequately balance parenting and emotional regulation with a child. As we know, there is no perfect way to parent, especially when children have special needs or have a diagnosis of ADHD, autism, developmental disabilities, sensory disorders, and more. 

It’s helpful for parents, Child Care professionals, and families to understand the differences among the programs so they can pick the one they feel will work best for their family,” said Matthew Rouse, PhD, a clinical psychologist. “These treatments can be matched to a child’s age, symptoms and degree of impairment.”

All of the methods listed are great ways to practice and implement new tools to help your child self-regulate their emotions and deep feelings. While there are challenges to parenting highly sensitive children, it can also be a gift. All of the work begins in one place; the home.

“It seems to me,” said Dr. Rouse, “that the family environment is the most important piece.”

a parent sharing her story in a support group

Check out our other blog about how all behavior is a form of communication!

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