Parents: How to set the emotional tone

It’s easy to understand why we feel distressed when our child is upset: we want desperately to help, we wish the situation were different, or neither we nor our child is in an ideal position to cope with the emotions at hand. Sometimes, we find our pulses racing, our emotions churning, and our voices raising when our children are not exactly in control. 

Children benefit from being shown another option during moments of dysregulation.  This is called setting the emotional tone.  

In order for your child to get from enraged to a mindset of protesting and problem solving, a few things have to happen, but overall, you are creating a space where they can begin to mirror your volume, language, behavior, attitude, and body language to reset. 

  1. First: Your child will need you to provide him/her with the language for what they are experiencing. “I see that you are upset because you really want a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”
  2. Second: Followed up with a validation of the emotion, or at least a recognition that some part of his/her experience makes sense to you. “PB&J is really good and I understand why you want one.”
    • For older kids, the concept they are struggling with can be addressed here too, “It’s really disappointing when we cannot have something when we really want it”.
  3. Third: Once you have captured your child’s attention, you can take the opportunity to make the depth of the “No” or what ever is distressing them, shallower.  For example, “Let’s plan for PB&J on Wednesday, right now we are at grandmas house and she made _____, which we are all going to eat for lunch”.
    • Older kids may tolerate, “I would like to help you practice feeling patient”. At this point, tell your child what you would like him/her to do. “I would like for you to join family lunch.”
    • For kids who need a choice at this point in their decision making process, give one, but be certain that both options are acceptable to you. “I hope you decide to sit with us at lunch, or you may sit at the counter in the kitchen and draw a picture.” Go ahead and throw in anything that is true which would appeal to your child, but do not bribe or bargain. “Your cousins will be at lunch and I know you always have fun playing with them”

Remember, it is not a parents responsibility to respond perfectly in every situation. When adults practice skills to keep their calm in situations that may be tense, children are provided with an example to follow and can begin learning the skills of emotional regulation. By choosing to think about their responses, practice asking for what the need, and moving through a circumstance without everyone feeling overwhelmed, new habits and behaviors can be formed.