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Working through big emotions

“Hey, you in the car in front of me – you drive like an…!”

Most of us at some point, in our heads, have thought something like this. We've all been there. We experience a moment of frustration or anger and we have a thought in our head that we would never say out loud. 

Imagine, for a moment, that you did not have the capacity to keep those thoughts to yourself and you expressed what you were thinking or feeling out loud to others. While it would certainly make the world a more interesting place, it is unlikely that you would have much success at work, in relationships, or in any measurable aspect of life. At some point, you learned that there is a need for an inside voice – a voice in your own mind that you did not use out loud. 

Children are in the process of developing this skill, which they gradually develop between the ages of two through the early teen years. As a result, children will say things that adults never would. On occasion, they will say or do the most outrageous and unacceptable things, or behave in ways that are completely inappropriate to the setting. How can we help kids develop this sense of what we refer to as self-regulation, the ability to manage emotions, in an effective way and adapt appropriately to individual situations?

In my own life, I often reflect on the value of self-regulation, particularly in situations in which frustration can be high. One of my personal pet peeves is standing in line at a concession stand for a movie only for the person in front of me, by the time they get to the counter, to finally look up at the items available and then start making a decision. I'm confident that my body language and facial expressions give me away, but I do not say to the person in front of me, “you had the past five minutes to make a choice... what's your problem?” I think it, but I don't say it. Children develop this skill set by observing and experiencing real-life situations.

As parents, it is advisable to allow kids to experience moments of dysregulation where they feel out of control of their emotions so they can experience the discomfort and unpleasant nature of such experiences and then develop a desire not to experience them again. We also need to take into consideration why a child might dysregulate (for instance, a child having tantrum in a store because they are not getting something they want). 

Planned and purposeful ignoring of tantrum behavior (but without criticism or judgment – because honestly, they are at the mercy of their emotions at this point!) can be very difficult, but very effective. Remember, very rarely do children have tantrums when there is no audience around to witness them!

Emotional regulation develops partly through what is called co-regulation, a situation in which the child learns to regulate their emotions based on their observations of role models around them, most typically parents. If our children observe us becoming highly agitated, yelling, hitting, or generally acting out, they are far more likely to engage in similar behavior. By the same token, if they are taught how to express their emotions through words in a non-judgmental and trusting relationship, they're more likely to exhibit exactly that behavior when dealing with heightened emotional situations in the future. 

As parents, there are a few things we can do to facilitate effective self-regulation:

  • Role model when to hit the “accelerator” (when to express emotions) and when to “brake” (slow down/regulate an emotional response).
  • Avoid judgemental language and focus on emotions as being healthy and normal. “I know 
  • that you are having some big emotions right now. Let’s see if we can work together to make them a bit smaller, even just a bit,” is way more effective than “Stop it! What’s wrong with you?” (Has anyone ever told you to “just calm down”?)
  • For older kids (upper elementary), teach them about how the brain has a Fight-Flight-Freeze response that is healthy, but can get overwhelming. By focusing on how the brain works, it removes guilt and shame from the child’s emotional experience.
  • Don’t punish a child for a “negative” emotional reaction. Show empathy, but be clear on the distinction between valid emotions and inappropriate behaviors (it is generally easier for kids to control behaviors than it is emotions).
  • Check in on yourself – if your child is dysregulated, there is a high probability that you, too, are dysregulated. By engaging in deep breathing, calming language, and soothing self-talk, you are not only regulating your own emotions, you are showing your child how to do exactly the same!


Dr. Brent Macdonald is a frequent guest on CBC, Global Television, Breakfast Television, and CTV. He is currently the lead psychologist with his own practice, Macdonald Psychology Group (, which in addition to providing counseling and assessment services, also provides consultation services to educators and parents.


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