Helping A Young Child Regulate Emotions

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Reader’s Question

Recently my five-year-old son went to bed around 7:30 pm, and as I was going past the room half an hour later I heard him sobbing uncontrollably. When I went in it took me around five minutes to calm him enough to be able to understand what he was saying. He told me about watching a movie earlier (Rio 2) where a little animal was singing a nice song and said he was crying because he was happy. But he wasn’t crying like he was happy, and he continued for a further 7 or 8 minutes before finally stopping. Is this normal for children of this age?

Psychologist’s Reply

Before going into more detail, I know it is most reassuring to start with the simple answer to your parenting question: yes, it is normal for children of this age to experience overwhelming emotions that they find difficult to control. Also, simply by noticing and tuning in to your child when he was overwhelmed with what were probably many emotions, you have done an excellent job teaching him that all his feelings are valid and important, and that you will help him feel safe when he feels flooded. It is these kinds of parent/child interactions that help solidify a bond between you and your son and will help him learn to self soothe as he gets older and learns to manage his emotions.

Young children in this age range are going through so many rapid changes in their physiological and neurological development. The prefrontal cortex, which is the part of our brain that helps us with planning ahead and modulating our emotions, is just beginning to develop in children this age. In fact, this part of our brain isn’t fully developed, on average, until we reach the age of 25! When we frame it in this context, it is much easier to understand how young children have difficulty regulating their feelings, display impulsive behavior, and really can’t plan or anticipate.

Your son may have, in fact, been so overwhelmed with joy that he started crying. When coupled with tiredness at bedtime, that may have contributed to just becoming flooded with emotion that he had difficulty stopping on his own. It is also possible that other emotions were part of his tears, but what is most important is that you sat with him, helped him feel calm enough to stop and engage his developing prefrontal cortex to find the words to explain what he was thinking, and perhaps what he felt in his body (and where he felt it). You are teaching your son how to use the skills that we all need in accepting and regulating our emotions. I think if you continue to accept his feelings, help him find ways to feel calm, and then talk about what he is thinking and feeling, you will be on your way to raising an emotionally healthy child. Parents in situations similar to yours might also be interested in learning more about ways to help children with their emotions by reading the book by Dan Siegel, M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D. called The Whole Brain Child [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK].

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