Step 2: Providing Emotional Regulation For Our Traumatized Children

As we discussed during our previous blog entry and in my video series (if you haven’t seen the videos, go here to watch), emotional regulation can be seen on a continuum.  Somedays, we are emotionally regulated, somedays we are not.

Dorinda Williams, LCSW and Senior Program Analyst/Writer with Zero to Three, states, “Babies and toddlers borrow emotions from us until they can emotionally regulate themselves.”  

So what does this mean?

Imagine a child who gets frustrated because she is told no.  The child begins the slow boiling where she starts pounding her fists or stomping her feet because she wants what she wants.  If a parent becomes frustrated also, this situation will last longer.  If a parent provides empathy and remains calm, recognizing that the toddler’s emotions are the toddler’s, the toddler will calm quicker and the interaction will move forward.

A young child has no experience on how to soothe herself on her own.  The child must seek external regulation before she can internally regulate.  

The reality for our children who have been traumatized, abused, or neglected, is that this process can happen over and over, regardless of age.

A ten year old who is finally feeling safe, may finally have the ability to start learning the necessary emotional regulation tools and strategies.  However, a ten year old’s temper tantrum and emotional explosion is usually much more intense and full of more colorful language than the toddler.

Yet, the ten year old needs exactly the same empathy, calm response, love, and emotional “borrowing” from a parent.

Here are some important tips for teaching emotional regulation:

1.  Be mindful of why your child is expressing an emotion.  FYI…a child will not be able to answer the question Why are you throwing a fit?  Never ask a “why” question to a child who cannot regulate.  The child will only get more frustrated and you will be upset because the child will not answer.

2.  Teach feeling words during non-stress times, encouraging your child to practice the words.  Then, put the word to the emotion during the tantrum.

3.  Repetition, repetition, repetition.  Practice words over and over.  Every emotion is an opportunity to practice and build a vocabulary.  As your child becomes more skilled at verbalizing emotions while she is calm, she will be more able to verbalize when she is dysregulated.

4.  Always repair the relationship after an intense emotional expression.  A traumatized child needs continued reassurance that he is loved.  Saying “I’m sorry” and “I love you” cannot happen enough.  Add some positive, healthy touch to this repair so that the child really feels the connection.

Emotional regulation is a journey.  Be gentle with yourself and your child as you move through this journey.

Sending you love,

Stacy G. York, LCSW

For More Information on Trauma and Your Child:


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