For parents: Helping young children to regulate their emotions


Our guest blogger, and parenting expert, psychotherapist Joanna Fortune shares her practical ideas on how you can calm down when your young child pushes your buttons – so you can help them to regulate their own behaviour!

This is not what you want, but we have all been there!

Anyone who has attended my talks, or clinical consultations, knows that I’ve never been an advocate of the Time-out. I prefer to talk about how, in order to be most effective, discipline must aim to teach the behaviour parents want to see from their child, rather than punishing the behaviour they don’t want to see.

However, giving yourself a 5-10 minute “time-out” before you react to your child’s negative behaviour may well be a good idea.  It can be very difficult to stay calm yourself when your child or children are acting out.  Their behaviour may even be pushing an emotional button in you, making it more likely that you will snap and yell at your child.  This will not diffuse the situation, moreover, it will only serve to escalate it.
Our children, especially the littler ones under 7 years old, will struggle to self-regulate their emotions.  They look to their parents and caregivers to co-regulate their emotions with them.  What this means is that if your child is “losing it” and they manage to make you “lose it” with them, they cannot co-regulate with your rage and as such their behaviour will likely escalate until one or other of you lash out, verbally or otherwise.  This will not help anyone and will leave you both feeling pretty rotten afterwards.  Now, none of us are saints but we are the grownups in charge and need to take steps to ensure we stay in this role.  This means we have to spot when we feel our tempers rising and ensure we do not react in those moments - but remove ourselves until we are calm enough to respond in a more positive way.  This is the value of a parental time-out.  Never just walk away from your child but say “I don’t want to lose my temper with you, so I need 5 minutes on my own to take deep breaths and then I am coming back to talk about this with you”.  If you feel you can take the 5 minutes breathing in front of them, better again as you are modelling a positive self-soothing behaviour.

Once calmer, return to the situation and try to hold in mind that the most effective discipline is discipline that seeks to teach the type of behaviours you want to see -rather than punishing the type of behaviours you don’t want to see. 
Give do-overs: Say something like “I think you forgot how we behave towards each other.  Do you want to try that again?” and if they do it correctly/better second time, praise that and move on.  If they don’t you will have to issue a consequence.
Consequences: Make these logical yet creative and try to deal with them in the moment.  For example, if you have two children squabbling, separate them and have them make each other a card with 3 things they like about each other and exchange the cards.  If they do this quickly or choose to take a long time, it is up to them. Your aim is to switch them from thinking about what they don’t like about each other to what they do like.


Help them understand the feelings behind the behaviours: Young children need us to help them make sense of their emotional experiences.  ACT is a good way to do this.  For example:
Acknowledge the feeling “I know that you are angry because your brother grabbed your toy”.
Communicate a limit “We do not hit people in this family”.
Target an alternative behaviour “If you want to hit something, hit that cushion over there”.
Use distraction over discipline: Very young children (under 4 years old) struggle to ‘do’ cause and effect, so they struggle to connect your disciplining them with their behaviour.  Instead use distraction, which does not mean ignoring the behaviour.  So, come to their eye level (holding their hands), in a firm yet gentle voice clearly say “no hitting” and then (still holding hands) bring them over to the building blocks and ask them to build a structure just like the one you are making, for example.


Joanna Fortune is a Clinical Psychotherapist specialising in child and adolescent Psychotherapy, with over 12 years experience working with children and families. She regularly writes in national media on parenting and family issues. See
Joanna recently hosted a series of successful talks for Kildare County Childcare Committee.