7 Ways (before 7am) to help your child regulate their emotions

Author: Bria Wannamaker

Bell Let’s Talk Day is tomorrow, January 25, 2023 and Anti-Bullying day in Canada is coming up on February 22, 2023. Bell Let’s Talk Day is an effort to help break the stigma surrounding talking about mental health, while the Anti-Bullying initiative is well known by wearing a pink shirt to school/work to promote inclusivity and acceptance. As a Registered Psychotherapist working in 3 different jobs in the field, I’m still seeing people of all ages with stigma surrounding mental health and therapy, and I’m still seeing people who experience bullying. I can’t help but wonder what resources we need to put in place; while our efforts are nice, are they truly making an impact, are these awareness days truly making an impact in the lives of individuals?

Also, as a side note – something that interests me is that when it occurs in the home among family members we’ve labelled it as abuse, but when it occurs at school among peers, we’ve labelled it as bullying? More to come on this, but seriously – just Google the definitions of each to find out the difference, here’s a hint, there isn’t one.

So, why do kids bully/abuse other kids? Why are kids bullying/abusing themselves (self-harm)?

Whether you acknowledge it or not, you’re angry about something…

Anger is at the root here. Anger directed outward. Anger directed inward. We need to take responsibility for the role that we play, as adults, in perpetuating a society that does not practice healthy expressions of anger – has no clue how to allow people to feel and experience anger. THANK GOODNESS I AM AWARE OF SIN, COS, TAN (said no one ever)… something has got to shift; I will NEVER use sin cos tan in this lifetime, I mean, never say never, but I’m pretty certain that it would serve me better to have learned how to nurture myself and my body, how to hold space for others feelings, how to understand that other’s feelings are valid and If I hurt them – even by accident and if it was not my intention, that they are still allowed to feel hurt.

One of my favourite Canadian speakers and teachers, Mark Groves, talks about this concept often – he asks why are we not learning about relationships and interpersonal effectiveness in school? The most important thing that has kept us alive for generations has been our ability to connect with others, to build community, to collaborate, and as Gabor also emphasizes – the importance of connecting with one’s Self and trusting one’s own intuition has also kept us alive.

So, we have disconnected, disconnected from Self and disconnected from other.

Another one of my Canadian favs, author and speaker, Gabor Mate, talks about how anger is healthy – anger is the demonstration of where our boundaries are and how we feel when our boundaries have been crossed and when our basic needs have not been attended to.

We are obsessed with productivity. Productivity and success. Hustle and grind. I have heard people say that they don’t see a point in exercising or taking care of their body because they don’t see how it will be productive.

What we’re missing…

Blue Zones (5 places in the world where people live the longest and are the healthiest):

  • Ikaria, Greece
  • Loma Linda, California
  • Sardinia, Italty
  • Okinawa, Japan
  • Nicoya, Costa Rica

Here are the factors that seem to foster longevity and lower risk of disease in the Blue Zones:

What are the behaviours and skills that they are practicing in the Blue Zones that are consistently fostering longevity and lowering risk of disease?

  • Sacred rituals, practices, values, and family traditions
  • Games and play – deep connection, laughter, and forgetting about squeezing something else in during the day
  • Eating vegetables, getting exercise, no smoking, limited drinking, typically in the form of red wine
  • Togetherness, unity, family and friends, laughter, interconnectedness, support from others, listening to others
  • Sense of purpose, a reason to live, outdoors, sun, water, active lifestyle

If your purpose is more external (Western culture) such as more money, a better job, a better car, a better phone, a bigger house, a better partner, a promotion, etc. Then your purpose and your reason to live lies outside of you – outside of your reach, and outside of your control. You’ll never truly be able to grasp it, you’ll just continue running on the hamster wheel. In the Blue Zones, having clear goals and a clear sense of purpose comes from within and being immersed in community and activity that align with internal values and that feel rewarding to each individual.

In Canada, suicide is a leading cause of death among adolescents.

Kids are cutting and self-harming.

We are impulsive, numb, and not grounded.

We are missing the beautiful slow-paced moments of life.

We are rushing kids from activity to activity.

We are giving them “breakfast to go”.

Emotional Co-Regulation: 7 Strategies that you can try

One of my most favourite things in the world is watching my partner with his daughter and their morning routine before school.

  1. He allows her to wake up naturally: Very rarely does he have to wake her up. It’s so important for everyone to be able to have naturally occurring sleep-wake cycles, especially for kiddos as their brains and bodies are constantly growing and need this time to repair, recover, and recharge. She’s physiologically supported before she even starts the day.

2. He gives her choice: “What would you like for breakfast?” Naturally, this is empowering, this is giving her a sense of control, an opportunity to state her wants, needs, likes, dislikes, preferences; an opportunity for her to use her voice and to receive immediate, tangible reinforcement for speaking her needs.

3. He teaches her cognitive flexibility and negotiation: We actually don’t have that right now but we do have this___ or this ____; which would you like? This allows her time to listen to others and any external barriers or boundaries, then she is able to take a moment to reflect and re-assess her needs by using her intuition and checking in with what her body wants and needs. Then, rather than engaging in rigid behaviour and becoming upset when external circumstances don’t go her way, she’s able to exercise cognitive flexibility which an important executive functioning skill that supports reasoning and problem solving

4. He prepares things slowly: I don’t ever think I’ve seen him rush to the fridge, or rush to put a lid on a container, or drop something because of rushing. He models a calm and connected state of being which naturally allows his daughter to co-regulate her emotional state of being to this level.

5. He sits down and has coffee or food with her while she eats her breakfast: LIKE ACTUALLY SITS THERE and provides her with unconditional love, attention, and admiration. He makes eye contact and actively listens to her. How wonderful is it that before going off to school to be 1 in a class of 20+, she gets to feel seen, heard, respected, accepted, valued, safe, and loved. How wonderful is it to be able to experience a sense of belonging within one’s family unit; this teaches our kids how to receive love, how to give love, and how to belong to one’s self. This is forming a secure attachment. 

6. He allows her time to play before school: fostering creativity , joy, and allowing her to feel comfort and excitement for the day. This also teaches her that there is room for play within the day and it doesn’t have to be all “work work work”. This also teaches her that she can take time for self-care, to burn energy, and to move her body.

7. He allows her to pick out what to wear: With some guidance of course in regard to appropriateness for weather, activity level, etc. – what a crucial point of development for one’s sense of Self expression, creativity, confidence, independence, and identity; all while having access to safety, support, and guidance.


Perhaps you don’t currently have a lifestyle that supports this type of start to the day, but are there areas in your life where you can slow down to create more opportunity for connection? It also doesn’t have to be perfect – can you slow things down for 1 day of the week instead of aiming for all 7? Can you model this within yourself, your own behaviours? How can you model connection with others.

Even if you’re hustling for money, making that paper, ultra-successful – what is the point if you don’t have anyone to share it with. I mean, REALLY think about it. You’re loaded, a billionaire, have dope ass cars and a dope ass mansion – but you don’t have any family or friends because you didn’t have enough time and attention to give them, your only connections are your employees but they go home to their own families at night, you don’t give to charity or take initiative to fund and research or projects because you’re scared of wasting your money. What was it all for? With relationships, without community, what is success? What does success look like when all we know is a fast-paced lifestyle with no down time, no time to settle, to enjoy, to just be?

Emotional Regulation & Bullying

It does not surprise me that a child who is ushered out of bed at an early hour, ordered around the house, told what to wear, told to hurry up, get out the door, and take your breakfast to go – we’re going to be late, get in the car now. And then they’re searching, seeking, grasping at, longing for, trying to experience some sort of semblance of excitement for the day so they go on their device so that their brain can get a little hit of dopamine and they’re told “get off your device, no wonder you’re in a grumpy mood all the time – you’re always on it.”

No wonder this child gets to school and feels emotionally dysregulated, has anger and other emotions that need to be expressed, no wonder they take it out on other kids, no wonder they bully other kids (not validating or condoning this type of behaviour just explaining the “why” instead of just labelling them as mean kids) – at any point in that morning were they shown grace? Compassion? Empathy? Stillness? Was regulation modeled to them? How about healthy interpersonal skills? Were they shown acceptance? If we don’t take the time to accept ourselves, then we have no shot in hell of accepting others.

Survival Mode

If they go to school and see someone who is different than them, doesn’t share the same beliefs, doesn’t agree with their perspectives or find the same things funny – they will reject them. They will ostracize them. They will send them into exile. Fear of the unknown, the unfamiliar, fear of other, is an innate human fear linked to fear of death and dying. Why do our kids fear death and dying? Because we are rushing them around as if there is something to be afraid of, so the limbic system in the brain is activated and they are in survival mode (versus activating the prefrontal cortex which is what we need for the executive functioning, cognitive flexibility, reasoning and problem solving as I mentioned above!!!!).

If we think of us humans as primal beings, as mammals, as pack animals – of course kids are bullying kids, of course they are creating a clique (tribe), and intolerant of others (threats/intruders/outsiders), they are being sent off to school (battle grounds) and feel that they need to fight for their own survival (love, attention, resources, safety, security, belonging).

The Adult’s Role

Let’s work toward emotional regulation within ourselves so that we can co-regulate with our children. No one is perfect, all we can do is try our best.

Here are 4 steps that you can take toward beginning to heal this:

These tips are based off of the four modules of Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT)

  1. Mindfulness: Become aware of the role that you play in this, but without judgement. Know that you are trying your best with what you know. Once you know better, you do better (Maya Angelou). Become aware of your thoughts, feelings, behaviours – your needs, your emotions. No judgement, just observe what’s going on in your life.
  2. Distress Tolerance: IMPROVE the moment

I (Imagery) – Picture your ideal scenario, what is it that you want to feel? Begin to foster this feeling. Remember, people in the Blue Zones sought a sense of purpose in life from within versus from external sources.

M (Meaning) – Add meaning to your daily tasks, if you need to, write out a list of why you go to work, why you do your laundry, why you take the time to prepare healthy meals, or speak these reasons audibly – whatever helps you to recognize the importance of engaging in things that can sometimes feel mundane and frustrating.

P (Prayer) – Whether you believe in a deity or not, take the time to connect with yourself, and if applicable, with God/source, spirit universe, etc.

R (Relaxation) – You have to relax. I always say that I could literally be in a totally blank room with nothing, and I would still somehow create work for myself. So, take it from me. Your worth and value on this earth is not determined by how many hours you’re productive for or by how many items you check off of your to-do list. Relaxation is productive. Relaxation contributes to your health and wellbeing.

O (One thing at a time) – Feminine energy is naturally more chaotic and multitasking in comparison to male energy (I’m referring to the energy that we all have within us, the Yin and Yang, the masculine and feminine). This is a time to harness the male energy. Remember how I said above that I’ve never seen my partner rush to the fridge? That kind of energy, chill, focused, purposeful, direct. Then there’s me running around in my pajamas leaving the tap running so that I can fill up the dog’s water dish in 30 seconds after I’m finished grinding the coffee beans and the cupboard door is open so that I don’t forget to take my vitamins, and then I OH SHIT- the pan is on the stove with hot oil in it because I forgot to put the eggs on. Yeah, I’m all for feminine energy and power AND, there’s no harm in tapping into the masculine to help us to execute one intentional thing in each moment instead of feeling like we’re failing at 20 different things at the same time.

V (Vacation) – How can you allow yourself a vacation? For me, it was this past Sunday when I was trying to fill my morning with a bunch of random tasks. I said to myself “Bria! You know how you’re always saying that you barely have time to breathe or to take a shit – THIS IS THE TIME TO BREATHE, USE IT!” We have to allow these moments in, guilt-free – you deserve it. I then scrapped my workout and sat down to watch RuPaul’s Drag Race with my breakfast, I wouldn’t change it for the world, I needed that time and it was so so lovely.

E (Encouragement from Self) – You need to foster a deep sense of belief and trust within yourself. We sometimes really and truly don’t believe that we are capable of handling things. Be your own biggest advocate and cheerleader. You know what you’re doing. If you don’t, you’ll ask for support. Literally say to yourself “I trust you”, and “I believe in you”. People are making millions off of us not believing in ourselves and trusting our own skills, intuition, gifts, abilities, and talents.

  • Emotional Regulation: Begin to shorten the refractory period. If you have an emotional reaction or outburst that you’re not proud of, instead of holding on to it all day, see if you can process it – journal it out, talk it out, reflect on it, do some movement, some self-care, etc. process it rather than hanging on to it for the rest of the day and allowing it to influence your state of being and your ability to stay grounded Work toward healing this reason versus ruminating over it or punishing yourself over and over again. Continue to shorten the refractory period and reset your nervous system to a state of balance and calm rather than being heightened for the rest of the day.
  • Interpersonal Effectiveness: You need to get in touch with yourself – your needs and wants. Gain awareness of your needs and boundaries, begin to describe these and express them to others, assert your boundaries, and also be gentle with yourself and with others in the process of building healthier relationships.

Most importantly, you’ve got this. You need to fill your cup and pour from a place of overflow rather than a place of depletion. This is a trickle down effect and has an impact on you, your family unit, and your community. When you can learn to love and nurture yourself, you can begin to love and nurture others.

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