The life of a young child can be wonderful but also stressful and also unpredictable. All children are capable of disconcerting behaviors and they can take different forms: collapses, explosions of emotions, tantrums, hitting, screaming… Although there may also be behaviors that are more difficult to detect but equally important: sadness, isolation, the tendency to repress feelings etc.
Nobody is born knowing how to control big emotions and children need time to learn them. The job of adults with children in their lives is to care for them, to nurture their ability to manage their emotional responses in a healthy way, so that they are able to adapt to the environment. Children do not know how to stay calm and do not have the ability to respond well to disappointment or lack of sleep… They do not have enough words to describe what they want or to explain what they feel. Frustration makes them vulnerable and they create a cannon to show their feelings: they become explosive children. But behind all that explosiveness there is always a child who needs to express their emotions and learn to self-regulate.
Self-regulation in explosive children
Self-regulation is the ability to manage feelings so that they do not interfere with relationships in day-to-day life. This could involve being able to calm down in upsetting or frustrating situations, when big feelings enter the picture. Self-regulation is not about not feeling or avoiding feelings, far from it. The blocking of feelings can cause as many emotional problems as any excessive outburst.
There is nothing wrong with feeling the big emotions. All feelings are valid and children feel what they feel and must accept it, in addition to acknowledging it. What is most important is learning how to manage those feelings. The key is to raise children towards the possibility of recognizing and expressing what they feel, without causing them an emotional break of any kind.
When children are able to regulate their emotional responses, they become less vulnerable to the effects of stress. They are also more likely to have adequate emotional resources to maintain healthy friendships, and the ability to focus and learn better in any context.
Emotional explosions or opportunities for improvement?
Each emotional explosion is an opportunity to steer them in a different direction and to strengthen the skills they need to name and manage their emotions in a way that works for them, without the seismic consequences that can happen when children are unable to regulate their emotions.
The fact that children have emotional outbursts does not mean that bad parenting is taking place or that the children are bad. Children are never bad. They may have tantrums or inappropriate behavior, but before you judge or punish them it is better to focus on that emotion to find out what their needs are. Parenting is not a straight path, you will find ups, downs and sharp curves. But in every moment of crisis it is an opportunity to show them the right path with love and respect.
How self-regulation develops in temperamental children
Self-regulation can be learned by all children, but always gradually. With a lot of support from parents or adult role models who are dedicated and wonderful. By modeling behavior and training good behavior, children will feel safe to explore and experience their own responses.
The part of the brain that is heavily involved in regulating big emotions and considering consequences is the part of the prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain does not fully develop until you are in your twenties. Until then, the brain is open to new experiences that build strong, healthy adults.
Signs of emotional self-regulation can be seen in babies, for example when they suck their thumb to calm their emotions. By the time children are two years old, most children are able to wait a bit to get something they want or to listen when spoken to. As children get older they experiment more with self-regulation and are able to learn to bridge the gap between intended emotions and responses.