Emotional Regulation

In the past few weeks there has been much awareness and discussion centered around sexual abuse, child safety, warning signs, and directions for parents on how to handle conversations on these topics.

Perhaps one of the most important preventive measures that a parent can implement is the establishment of a secure and trusting relationship with their child.

By creating a safe oasis, parents ensure that their children know there is someone to trust, which is a crucial component not only in unsafe situations such as unwanted touching or sexual abuse, but in all kinds of emotional realms as well.

My parents provided us with a comfortable home, and there was always food on the table. Dinner was served punctually every evening, our clothes were laundered consistently, and homework was supervised daily,” Chaya reminisced. “While our basic needs were taken care of, nobody checked in with me regularly about how my day was. If I complained about something, it was usually brushed off. Emotionally,  I was left to fend for myself.”

For many people, this kind of experience was the norm. As long as there was physical safety, a roof over one’s head and food on the table, there was nothing to complain about. Making space for emotion just was not on the radar. Whether this is in connection to being raised by the children of post- WW2 survivors, mental illness, or survivors of other types of trauma, it seems that it is not uncommon for today’s adults to report having been raised with a lack of emotional support. This impacts not only an adult individual, but carries over into their relationships with spouses, children, and beyond.

In the context of child safety, this article will focus on some important skills that lay the foundation for children to develop a stronger sense of being able to trust the adults in their lives to meet their emotional needs. Children have the instinctive yearning to connect emotionally to their parents, and to be a safe sounding board for one’s child is a precious gift a parent can provide.

Ideally, the time to start building the foundations of self knowledge and a safe, strong relationship is at a really young age, but it is never too late. In the teenage years, a child may seem disinterested and outwardly may show signs of pulling back from parents (eye rolls, scoffing, facial expressions, body language). Still, children have an innate desire to receive validation and acknowledgement from their parents.

Part of being a safe sounding board for our children, is being supportive of their emotions, even if those emotions make us uncomfortable as parents.

For example, sometimes siblings make less than friendly comments about each other. I once heard a child tell her mother, “I don’t like Sara” [her sister]. Her mother immediately corrected her “Yes, you do! You love her! You play with her all the time!”

First of all, let’s note that kids sometimes say things that don’t go as deep as we think. So it may be okay for a parent to accept the child’s statement with a casual ‘okay’. Depending on the circumstance, the tone of voice, the setting, a parent can judge whether they feel like this is something making an issue of. In my example, it was a young child making a statement without any incident, it appeared that she just wanted to engage with her mom. So there are times when children make statements that don’t have deep emotions behind them. Parents need not jump to their worst case thoughts of their children being estranged from each other as adults. It is likely more productive to feel curious, or interested.

If a parent feels that their child has made a statement that needs further discussion, validate the child’s statement, and help your child explore their statement. Ideally, it should come from a place of love, of support, and/or of curiosity. Stay away from judgment, condemnation, and urges to change the feeling.

Many parents have an instinctive desire to jump in and avoid, change, or correct emotions.

Fay noticed her 4 year old son Dovi tumble off the slide at the playground. She rushed over to him, exclaiming “‘You’re okay! You’re fine!” Dovi didn’t feel fine. He was shaken by this unexpected tumble. Fay could have used this as a teachable moment, asking Dovi, “how are you feeling?”, thus inviting him to tune in to his emotions and at the same time showing him that his mom trusts him to determine for himself how he feels, and is able to hold space for his emotions.

Tzippy, a smart and capable ninth grader, was complaining to her mom, Devora, about her homework. “I have tons of homework, it’s impossible! Mrs. Goldstein assigned a huge project and Mrs. Hellman is giving two quizzes and a test this week. It’s so much work. It’s too hard. I hate school. What is the point of learning all these random things? I never remember the material after the test anyway. ”

Devora responded, “It’s not that bad, Tzippy. If you stop complaining and just buckled down, it would be half done already.” Creating a safe emotional oasis might include Devora being understanding, or asking about why it is hard for Tzippy to do her homework. Tzippy may have worries about her grades, about her teachers, or about her friends, that are being masked behind a general complaint about schoolwork. Devora’s response effectively shut down the lines of communication, instead of offering validation and empathy.

When a scenario involving emotion presents itself, it is helpful to look beyond the surface, and encourage children to share the feelings they are experiencing. If it is a situation of a child complaining, it can be beneficial to explore the emotions driving their complaint. Validating a child’s feelings gives them confidence in their ability to know themselves better. Self-knowledge can be associated with good relationships. If one does find themselves in a place where they responded emotionally to a trigger, it is so validating for a child to hear their parent calmly discuss that with them.

Parents: please know, you can repair mistakes.

A key component to helping one’s child is looking into oneself. Emotional regulation can be difficult for a parent to maintain, but it is so important to discipline without losing one’s temper. It is not about what the child has done, but also recognizing what the behavior has triggered in oneself.

A safe emotional environment includes being fully present for the child (not getting stuck on one’s own trigger), helping children understand their feelings, and providing acceptance and validation.

When parents invest in creating a safe emotional space for their children, they are creating an environment that will have a ripple effect for generations.