Why So Emo? Frustration and Emotional Regulation

The first five years of your child’s life is bursting with curiosity, exploration, and…emotions. One moment, they’re happy and the next, they’re bawling their eyes out because you gave them the wrong color cup or because they can’t fit a square peg into a round hole.

In our past post about self-regulation, kids need to adjust their arousal levels to meet and manage the energy demands of their tasks throughout the day. This includes how to appropriately handle emotions.

Kids, especially toddlers, are on an emotional rollercoaster every day trying to figure out what they’re feeling and how to deal. Not surprisingly, it can be difficult finding the words to express themselves or coping with circumstances that aren’t going their way.

Emotional regulation is the ability to manage our emotions. It is similar, if not interchangeable to self-regulation, as it requires consciously shifting attention and modulating emotional activity. It involves behaviors like rethinking a tricky situation to reduce anger or anxiety, concealing visible signs of fear or sadness, or focusing on reasons to feel happy or calm.

In addition, emotional regulation is the capacity to take a breath/moment/beat between a feeling and an action, ensuring that those actions are appropriate and rational. As children learn how to cope with big feelings, they develop resilience in an unpredictable world.

In turn, having good emotional regulation supports:

  • More focus during tests and exams
  • Better attention and problem-solving skills
  • Better performance on tasks involving delated gratification, inhibition, and achievement of long-term goals
  • Better handling of trauma and adversity
  • Positive relationships with family and friends

Good emotional regulation is also a strong predictor for academic performance and success.

Temper, Temperament

Although emotional regulation is a skill that is learned and modeled, a child’s temperament can also play a role. Temperament is how we respond to the world and is based off how much or how little we react, self-regulate, or socialize to the stimuli around us. These traits can sometimes be engrained into our personality.

For example, some babies may have a tougher time self-soothing (often described as fussy). Some children may be labeled as “sensitive” because they have different thresholds to what they can and cannot handle from their environment. Some kids have strong preferences on how things are done (assertive) while others don’t know when to quit until the job is complete (persistent). You get the idea.

One emotion that children often struggle with is frustration. A close relative to anger, frustration occurs when we simply want what we can’t have, such as the inability to change an outcome or achieve a goal. If there is no remedy to this feeling, frustration can turn into anger and aggression. Although all kids experience this, some kids have a low frustration tolerance compared to others due to their temperament. 

In our Whole-Brain Child series, we talked about how the brain can be viewed as a house: the upstairs (rationale and forethought) and the downstairs (arousal level and emotions). One resident of the upstairs brain is the pre-frontal cortex, responsible for self-control. Young children do not have the neurological ability to control their emotions because their pre-frontal cortex is still under construction.

For parents, that means we must act as our kids’ pre-frontal cortex, helping them manage their feelings and guiding good decision-making.

How can I help when my child gets frustrated/has big feelings?

  • Interoception check – If you notice your kid hitting high levels of frustration, check to see if it’s their body trying to tell them something. Maybe their hangry, hot/cold, or extremely tired.
  • Sensory overload Frustration can arise because there is too much input coming in at once. If this is the case, allow them some time and space to chill out. A hug or calming timeout can help regulate breathing, heart rate, and mellow them out.
  • Trigger points – Everyone’s got a button that pushes them over the edge. If you know what may set your kid off, prepare them (and you) for it. That might mean talking about the upcoming challenge and coming up with ways to handle it together. The goal here is not to avoid the situation or have your child deal with it on their own, but to ensure that they feel safe and able to cope appropriately.
  • Let’s talk about it – Keep the lines of communication open so your child can express their feelings in a healthy way. If they’re getting upset, keep calm and let them experience it. Help them process the emotion through empathy, kindness, and curiosity.
  • Label it – If your kid is getting frustrated, help them catch it by calling it out. If you see it increase, perhaps say, “Hey, I see you’re getting frustrated. Maybe step away for a minute and come back to it.” As they become more understanding of their emotions, you can hint, “Hey, how are you feeling?”, allowing them to gauge their current feeling and use their strategies to calm down.
  • Become the Watson to their Sherlock – If your child is having difficulties with a challenging task, help them come up with possibilities to figure it out on their own. For example, I tell my 4-year-old, “What’s another way to do that? Let’s change our perspective.” Reminder: Don’t fix their problem, just guide them.
  • Walk (or jump or run) it off – Because frustration and anger carry high arousal levels, it can lead to physical and aggressive outbursts. To alleviate this excess energy, give them opportunities to burn it off. That can be anything from taking a walk around the block, going to the playground, or even trying some new TikTok dance.
  • Break it down to build it up Scaffolding is allowing your child to complete a task that they wouldn’t be able to do without assistance. Simply put, it’s breaking down an activity so that your child feels successful and therefore would want to do it until they can on their own. This helps kids take things one step at a time, so it’s more understandable and less overwhelming.

Yes, we know this is all easier said than done. But, a frustrated child is not helped by a frustrated parent. When the struggle bus comes (and we all know it does), help your kid by modeling emotionally-healthy behavior and being patient and understanding.

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