The Goal of Emotional Regulation is Not Quiet, Compliant Kids

The lessons we learn about feelings are powerful. From a very young age we are taught in both spoken and unspoken ways which feelings (and associated behaviors) are welcome and which aren’t.

A parent shared with me after a workshop a couple of years ago, “I was always told in one hundred different ways that my tears were not welcome in my house when I was growing up. No one ever had to say, ‘boys don’t cry’ to be clear about the message. It was obvious.”

Recently a Black parent shared with me, “Oh, it’s clear that my son’s anger scares his teachers. I know he is still learning how to handle it…we all are. But honestly? How can he not be rageful right now?”

It is clear that the formative lessons our kids learn about emotions and behavior are not just shaped by our individual family systems. They are also formed by race, class, and gender in distinct ways that differ across contexts. We don’t have to look far for painful examples from the research. For example, a study from the Yale University Child Study Center found that Black and Brown children were more likely to be met with expulsions and suspensions even as early as preschool for the same emotions and behaviors that white children are given space and support for. Boys who show more emotions or vulnerability are more likely to be the target of bullying behaviors. Girls are not expected to be angry but instead rewarded for being compliant and kind no matter what, a rigid gender norm that is associated with relationship violence and abuse.

Kids’ feelings are not the problem. But adult interpretation of and response to them certainly can be. So how can we, as parents, educators, or caring adults, be critical emotion coaches at a time when kids’ brains and bodies need the most support and practice? How can we nurture emotionally courageous kids and tackle and reimagine emotionally damaging systems?

Child raising her arms in defiance feeling lots of emotions

We need to be clear on the goal.

Big feelings are certainly messy, frustrating, and even overwhelming sometimes – for both kids and adults alike. Emotions can be especially big and volatile in early childhood and on through adolescence because the part of the brain that helps kids handle them is under construction. Kids rely on caring adults to help them practice the skills of emotional regulation as their brains grow and develop. Since the emotional rollercoaster can get pretty wild, we need to be clear on the goal of coaching so we don’t get off track. The aim is NOT to squash or punish big feelings. The goal is NOT to raise quiet and compliant kids.

Instead, real emotional regulation involves feeling, naming and moving through the entire range of emotions. The goal is to help children and youth answer the questions:

  • What am I feeling?
  • Where do these feelings come from?
  • Who can I trust and who is safe and/or appropriate to share my big feelings with?
  • What do I do with these feelings?

Emotional regulation is not the same thing as following the rules.

With these questions in mind, it is clear that while emotional regulation might contain compliance it isn’t limited to it. Following rules is certainly part of the reality in all of our lives and cooperation is an essential skill. We have written a lot about the importance of limits and consequences for helping children understand the impacts of their actions on others. But we also need to be able to ask ourselves and our families, “Who is writing the rules and who and what do they serve? Are rules being applied to everyone the same way? To whom are the rule-makers accountable? When are rules unfair and need to be re-imagined?”

These are big, complicated questions that we grapple with throughout our lives (and in an upcoming blog soon!). But preparing our kids to do this important work means helping them know and name their feelings, learn the context for them, and build tools for settling their bodies enough to channel feelings into healthy actions for themselves and others.

Before we move on, it is important to note that focusing on individual “compliance” and rule following isn’t just ineffective, it can reinforce systems of oppression. For example, Dena Simmons of the Yale School of Emotional Intelligence argues that if we don’t teach about the social and political context for emotion and conflict, then we are simply asking children of color to be “more calm” through ongoing experiences of racism. In schools, depoliticizing and individualizing emotional regulation can simply become another way to police the emotions and behaviors of students of color. All children need spaces where they can experience a range of powerful emotions including joy, pride, anger, and pain and understand the systems that fuel them.

Teaching quiet and compliance to white children without political and social context is also dangerous. The reality is that white children are more likely to benefit from quiet and compliance in systems more likely to support them. It is clear that one of the jobs of parents is to raise children who have strong emotional responses to racism, sexism and other forms of oppression and are able to disrupt the systems that ultimately aren’t healthy for them or for others. These disruptions might include children intervening when a friend says a racist comment even if adults don’t notice, identifying and disrupting their own biased thinking, stepping back to follow others’ lead, or speaking up when they notice that the curriculum centers only white voices, or portrays problematic or oversimplified representations of anyone.

Emotional regulation can prepare kids to be disrupters when they need to be.

The stakes are high. For example, we know that many parents and educators ignore teen boys’ denigrating comments about girls even when these comments are in their midst, and that young people are often passive bystanders. Real emotional regulation equips children to handle conflict, big feelings, and challenges, not avoid them.

When children (and adults) haven’t had practice noticing their feelings, understanding the context for them, and considering next steps – they are more likely to go into “freeze, flight, or fight” mode in the face of conflict, leaving them ill equipped to stand up for themselves or for others. Emotional regulation allows children to settle this stress response enough to access their “thinking brain” and consider right action.

All children need real emotional literacy and emotional regulation for the kind of sustained disruption and allyship that is required of them.

Real emotional regulation also relies on adults who are willing to create relationships and systems that support this work.

The goal is courage.

Let’s support and coach the full range of emotions and tools for handling them from early childhood through adolescence. Let’s work towards emotional courage, not compliance.

    • Instead of punishing emotions, let’s coach them instead. Here’s a link for more tips on how to be your child or teen’s emotion coach.
    • All behavior is communication. What can you learn about what is underneath kid’s feelings? What does it tell you about a child’s unmet needs, your biases, your family system, classroom, or school system?
    • Use books with young children and on through adolescence to talk about emotions (including both anger, joy, and courage) and where they come from.
    • Talk about the political and social context of conflict and our emotional responses, including talking explicitly about racism, white supremacy, sexism, and misogyny.
    • Be an adult that children and youth can trust with their emotions. Not just because you will listen to them but because you will work alongside them to solve problems, consider impact, and create more just rules and systems.

Model the courage of introspection. Reflect on these parenting questions:

    1. What emotions were you “allowed” to have as a child or teenager at school? In your neighborhood? At home?
    2. What happened when you got angry as a child? How did grown ups around you respond?
    3. How do you respond when your own child has “big feelings?”
    4. Can you remember a time when you were treated unfairly and your rage or anger about that experience was welcomed by an adult? How did that adult talk with you about it? Can you remember a time when you experienced the opposite?
    5. Have you ever been there for your kid or someone else’s kid where you allowed them to be angry and helped them think through how to move through their anger and make positive change?
    6. Can you think of a time when you encouraged compliance in your kid instead of right action? Was it necessary for their emotional or physical safety? If so, what kind of support do you draw on to process the complicated reality of these conversations? If not, can you think through some other ways you could have coached your kid to respond to an injustice?