The regulation of emotions is one of many developmental processes that children go through. It is interesting to watch children use new strategies as they learn to control their emotions.
Language is one of the contributors to improved emotional self-regulation. As children reach the age of three or four, they can control how they express their emotions by verbalizing a variety of strategies. Children learn, for example, that they can blunt emotions by covering their eyes or ears to restrict sensory input from a scary sight or sound. They can also talk to themselves with words of comfort, such as “My mom said she would be back soon.” Children even learn to change their personal goals in an adaptive way. They learn they can decide they didn’t want to play anyway after being excluded from a neighborhood game.
Children also develop the ability for effortful control. They learn to inhibit impulses and shift attention. Three- to four-year-olds who can distract themselves when they get frustrated tend to become cooperative school-age children. By age three, children already have the skill to portray an emotion they don’t actually feel, such as reacting in a cheerful way when receiving an unwanted gift.
It is important for children to develop effective emotional regulation strategies. Parents who prepare children for tough experiences by describing what to expect and talking about ways to cope with situations are teaching their children strategies to try out and apply. In addition, children pick up strategies for regulating strong feelings by watching parents manage their own. It is helpful to children learning emotional regulation strategies to see and hear parents express positive emotions, validate children’s feelings as important, and control their own strong emotions such as anger.