How To Help a Child Regulate Their Emotions: Why Remembering the Good Matters - Happy as a Mother

How To Help a Child Regulate Their Emotions: Why Remembering the Good Matters


with Dr. Becky Kennedy, Founder of Good Inside



WHAT YOU’LL LEARN


  • Why It’s Important to Remember the Goodness In Our Kids
  • Why Punishment Is Counterintuitive
  • How To Shift Our Beliefs About Our Children’s Intentions
  • How Our Children Learn (Even If We Don’t Punish)
  • What the True Goal of Parenting Is

When our children misbehave, it can be very triggering. We feel frustrated, disrespected, and uncertain of how to handle it. As a result, we often end up unsuccessfully trying to control their behaviour, instead of guiding them through their feelings. 

Today, I’m joined by Dr. Becky Kennedy, founder of Good Inside, to discuss how to help a child regulate their emotions and navigate their big feelings.

Searching for the Emotion Behind the Behaviour 

There’s nothing that makes me want to fly off the handle more than hearing my children speak disrespectfully to me. It makes my blood boil. My first instinct is to raise my voice and demand respect. 

It takes intention for me to take a step back and think about why they are acting the way they are acting. But when I do that, I can almost always see what’s leading to the behaviour—hunger, tiredness, or their own emotions. 

In my own home growing up, nobody looked at the emotions behind the behaviour. Nobody tried to help me navigate my feelings. As a result, I had to spend a lot of time learning how to do that as an adult. 

But if we really want to change our children’s behaviour, we have to start by supporting their feelings. 

Dr. Becky has shared insight on this topic online for awhile now, discussing triggering behaviour and how to help our kids develop resilience and navigate their feelings. I couldn’t wait to pick her brain on the topic and discuss how to help our kids regulate their emotions. 

Why It’s Important to Remember the Goodness In Our Kids

Dr. Becky’s membership platform and now her upcoming book share the same name—Good Inside. She shared that the reason she chose that name is because she believes remembering that we are all good inside is a valuable principle in all of our relationships. 

While it might seem obvious on the outside, when we are in triggering moments it can be hard to remember. 

Dr. Becky pointed out that so much of the conversation about parenting ties into behaviourism. How do I stop my child from hitting? How do I get my child to listen? How do I make my child stop disrespecting me? 

We turn to sticker charts, punishments, or time-outs in hopes of shaping our kids’ behaviours. 

But she said that if our children are exhibiting undesirable behaviour, it’s because they are struggling with emotional regulation. If we can look at behaviour as a clue, not the indicator of who the children are, then we can learn how to help them regulate their emotions. 

Remembering that our children are good on the inside helps us take a step back and be compassionate. It allows us to come up with different, and better, interventions for the behaviour than if we see their behaviour as an indicator of their identity. 

We should also have that same level of compassion with ourselves. Instead of shaming ourselves for yelling or losing our cool, we can remind ourselves that we are good at our core. It doesn’t mean that we are angry moms or bad moms. We just need to learn new skills

Why Punishment Is Counterintuitive

Dr. Becky shared that people are often skeptical of respectful parenting approaches. They believe that when you focus on the emotions and don’t punish the behaviour, you’re just reinforcing it. 

But she likened it to learning how to swim. If our children started swim lessons and didn’t know how to do it, we wouldn’t send them to their rooms to punish them for now knowing how. That wouldn’t be reasonable, and it wouldn’t actually do anything to teach them how to swim. 

That’s why punishment is counterintuitive. It doesn’t help them learn the skills they need to actually change their behaviour. She said that children are like raw, live wires. They need help building the skills to manage their feelings. 

But if we punish them, it makes it harder for them to do that. They feel alone. They feel misunderstood. They feel ashamed. They feel resentful. Those feelings get added on and make it harder for them to manage their feelings. 

How To Shift Our Beliefs About Our Children’s Intentions

One of the ideas that Dr. Becky advocates for is focusing on the “most generous interpretation” of our children’s behaviour. 

It’s usually much easier to think of the least generous interpretation. We think they’re being disrespectful or trying to control us. But there’s likely another way to interpret the behaviour. 

For example, if your child asks for pretzels thirty minutes before dinner and you say no, but they go eat them anyway, you might feel like they are being disrespectful. But there are more generous interpretations of that behaviour. Maybe they really were hungry. Maybe they just had an urge that was hard to overcome. There could be many reasons why they ate the pretzels. 

But in the moment of triggering behaviour, it’s hard for us to think about those other interpretations. Even if we know all the right things to do, even if we have the best of intentions, we often struggle when triggered. That’s why we need to have strategies in place.

Dr. Becky recommended thinking of a triggering behaviour your child shows. Think about the most generous interpretation for why they are acting that way, and write it down. Then, set a reminder on your phone with that message and have it pop up several times a day—even when your children aren’t around. 

Looking at our children with the most generous interpretation of behaviour is a new muscle—we have to practice it outside of the moment. 

Sometimes it’s hard to search for those most generous interpretations. But we can think about them in terms of our own behaviour as well. Dr. Becky pointed out that if her husband cooked her a meal and asked her not to eat chocolate before dinner, and she did it anyway, it wouldn’t be because she was disrespecting him. It could be because she had a craving, or a stressful day. 

We have to give our children the same benefit of the doubt. She said that we often interpret our children’s behaviour as a sign of disrespect as opposed to a skill they are lacking in themselves. 

How Our Children Learn (Even If We Don’t Punish)

Dr. Becky said that some people believe when we support instead of punish, we aren’t preparing kids for the real world or that we’re letting them get away with undesirable behaviour. 

But she pointed out that if we want our children to learn to swim in the ocean, we don’t start out by putting them in with the current. We teach them how to swim in safer waters. 

Our children’s early years are our kids’ safe waters. Just because we teach them there, doesn’t mean they’re never going to be able to swim in the ocean. They just need the skills and confidence before we send them in. 

For example, if our child says, “I hate you,” we might think we need to punish them because they need to learn that they can’t do that—we don’t want them to grow up and think it’s okay to say that to a boss. 

But that way of thinking is backwards. Someone who says, “I hate you” to their boss never learned to manage disappointment or frustration. When we support our children through their emotions, we let them build the skills for themselves. 

We don’t want our kids to have to learn consequences in a negative way—we want to give them the skills to regulate their emotions before they even get there. 

Dr. Becky said that addressing the feeling and giving them the skills to manage it isn’t being “easy,” it’s being effective. 

She said to imagine that you had a really hard day where nothing went right, and when you got home you yelled at your spouse. Imagine that your spouse was supportive, saying, “It’s not okay to talk to me like that, but I understand that something is going on with you. Let’s take a minute and get to the bottom of what you’re feeling.” 

Would you then want to yell at your spouse more because they “let you get away” with yelling? Or would you trust them more, feel more supported, and want to make sure you worked on your behaviour better in the future? 

Addressing the feelings gives our children the space and the skills to actually change their behaviour over time. 

What the True Goal of Parenting Is

Dr. Becky also pointed out that giving our children opportunities to work through their feelings is important. Sometimes we want to make them happy all the time, yet we expect them to understand how to navigate tough emotions when we’re getting triggered by their behaviour. 

We have to view it differently if we want them to regulate their emotions. Our goal as parents should not be to alleviate all the challenges or to make our children happy. Instead, the goal should be to support resilience. 

When we think of happiness as a goal for our kids, we start to view distress as the enemy. When they struggle, we look to bring on happiness instead of building stress tolerance. 

Maybe our child comes home and is sad because they were left out of a birthday party. So we instantly want to jump to distraction or minimize the feeling. 

We might say, “Oh well we’re going to have our own party, and if they’re going to have 5 balloons, we’re going to have 10!” Or we might say, “Oh but now we’re going to have this day open to do so many other fun things!” 

But neither of those approaches actually helps them through the struggle. In their lives, there will be times when they are angry, upset, jealous, or stressed out. When we have taught them to search for instant happiness in those moments, we have actually trained them to not be able to sit with their feelings. 

If, on the other hand, we help them build tolerance for discomfort, and for all of their emotions, then we give them the space to find true happiness much faster. 

We want our children to be comfortable feeling the widest range of feelings possible, so they can take on challenges, bounce back from hard times, and manage relationships. Those are the things that lead to a happy life—not searching for a feeling they aren’t having. 

Dr. Becky said to imagine that there is a garden of benches—happiness benches, loneliness benches, sad benches, angry benches. If we always try to get our kids up from the other benches to go find the happiness bench, they will become fearful of the other benches. 

But if we just sit with them where they are and support them, they will feel safe in all of their emotions. Then, they will get off the bench when they are ready. 

It isn’t easy to teach our children how to regulate their emotions, just as it isn’t easy to teach it to ourselves. But little by little over time, they (and we) can learn how. 

If you’re struggling to regulate your own emotions, talking to a mom therapist can help. Book your free 15-minute consult through our Wellness Center today! 

Dr. Becky Kennedy is a clinical psychologist and mom of three, named “The Millennial Parenting Whisperer” by TIME Magazine, who’s rethinking the way we raise our children. She specializes in thinking deeply about what’s happening for kids and translating these ideas into simple, actionable strategies for parents to use in their homes. Dr. Becky’s goal is to empower parents to feel sturdier and more equipped to manage the challenges of parenting.

Dr. Becky has amassed a loyal and highly engaged community of over 1M followers on Instagram, created a library of popular parenting workshops, launched a top-rated podcast as well as a newsletter, and published a Potty Handbook. She recently launched Good Inside Membership and her first book, Good Inside: A Guide to Becoming the Parent You Want to Be, will publish in September 2022.


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