The 3 Rs of Emotional Regulation

The 3 Rs of Emotional Regulation

Sep 21, 2023

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This is the podcast where you learn how to become a calm parent and raise emotionally healthy kids, but what do emotional health and emotional regulation actually mean? Today I’m sharing a framework from the book, “What Happened To You?” and outlining the 3 Rs of emotional regulation. 

You can start using these simple concepts right away to help calm yourself and coach your kid when they’re having big feelings.  


What Is Emotional Health?

When I talk about emotional health (which is the goal of all my programs), I'm really talking about emotional literacy. 

Emotional literacy is made up of three parts: 

I know what I'm feeling
I know how to talk about what I'm feeling
I know what to do with my feelings

We all have an emotional life, with lots of messy stuff inside. We're constantly responding to experiences and stimulation from the outside world. As things happen around us, we have thoughts and feelings about it. And those feelings show up as behavior. 

When we are overwhelmed by a circumstance or it feels like we're in danger or something bad is about to happen, we get flooded with a lot of big feelings. When our kids act out these feelings, it often looks like temper tantrums or meltdowns. I call it a Big Feeling Cycle. When an adult gets overwhelmed, it looks like them freaking out, losing their shit and being a hot mess. 

In these times, we are dysregulated. Our brain is flooded with hormones and chemicals that are meant to help us deal with a stressful situation and keep us safe. The brain wants us to respond FAST. But it ends up looking like someone who is out of control, wild or raging. 

I want to help you see that that behavior is really just somebody who's struggling to manage their emotions. They're doing their best to move through their big feelings. They're in a dysregulated state, and they're doing things to regulate themselves.

Knowing what to do with feelings is the biggest thing I help parents learn - for themselves and for their kids. 


Three Rs of Emotional Regulation

When you find yourself yelling at your kids, lecturing or grabbing their bodies, you are dysregulated. Your stress response is activated and you are seeking regulation. 

In kids, dysregulation often looks like crying, kicking, punching, threatening or yelling. It is helpful to remember in those moments that your child is using those behaviors as tools to cope with the overwhelm. 

They are trying to regulate themselves, but they don't really know how to do it in an acceptable way yet. 

These 3 Rs come from the book "What Happened To You" by Dr. Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey. 


Rhythm involves moving your body in some kind of rhythmic way. It is what we do during a Pause Break. You take a break to move your body and your mind. Stomping your feet, jumping up and down, going for a walk or doing a shimmy shake are all ways that we use rhythm and movement to calm ourselves. 


This can mean your relationship with yourself or with others. In your relationship with yourself, this looks like self-compassion. Being able to put your hand on your heart and say, "Geez, this is hard. I'm very overwhelmed. These kids are a lot. I'm having a hard day." In relationship with others, it might look like calling a friend or talking to your partner for support.


Rewards are the things we do to distract ourselves and get a little dopamine kick. We might have a treat, scroll Instagram for a few minutes or get something checked off our to-do list. 

All of these things are good and healthy. The key is to start having more awareness around yourself in the process. Notice when you are doing something because you are dysregulated. When you can identify it and intentionally calm yourself, it happens more quickly. 


Emotional Regulation in Kids

When kids are dysregulated, they need support from the adults around them. And in order to help your kid through their big feelings, you have to be calm and regulated yourself. 

Once you're calm, your child needs you to validate their emotion. Help them figure out what the heck they're feeling and let them know it's okay for them to feel that way. You may not think that whatever they're going through is a big deal, but compassion requires us to get out of criticism and judgment and get into the heart and mind of the other person. 

You can validate their emotion and understand that they're mad/disappointed/sad, listen to their complaints and offer them other ways to deal with their big feelings. I call this the "Now What?" and it's where the 3Rs are really helpful.  

What does your kid need? 

Do they need rhythm (movement, looking at a fountain or fish tank, rocking)? What do they naturally do with their body when they're dysregulated? This can be a clue to the type of movement that will be helpful. 

Do they need relationship (kindness and compassion from you)? This can be a bit confusing when you're the one who upset them by saying no, giving a consequence, etc. You can be both the adult who is helping them regulate and the adult who is helping them become responsible.

Do they need a reward? Reward in this context is a little different from how we usually think about it. Picture the reward as the feeling of relief we all feel when our Big Feeling Cycle ends. There’s a little bit of pleasure that is created from being regulated after being distressed. 

Relationship and the feeling of being soothed can be a reward in and of itself. 

We’re also seeking a little dopamine kick. Screens give us this, but they don’t allow us to release the built up stress hormones that are pumping through the nervous system. I love little tasks as a reward tactic. A tiny, simple task can give a little distraction and pleasure or satisfaction when it is complete.

You don’t want to always distract your kid from negative emotions (or they won’t learn to self-soothe), but these rewards or tasks can be a helpful tool at times, especially when they also involve rhythm or relationship elements. 


I want to invite you to see their behavior as a strategy that they are using to cope with overwhelm or discomfort, to see their behavior and think, I think they might be dysregulated. What do they need? Rhythm, relationship or reward? 

When you use the framework of seeing the behavior as an expression of unmet emotional needs or struggle, you will shift into compassion faster, and you will co regulate faster, which is amazing!


You'll Learn:

  • The 3 Rs of emotional regulation, and my signature Calm Mama Process that helps you regulate your own feelings and help your kids with theirs
  • How to show compassion, even while following through with consequences
  • Why distractions and screens might help end a Big Feeling Cycle, but they don’t have the long-term reward we’re looking for 
  • The basic reward strategies I teach in my programs


Additional Resources:

  • My 3-part podcast series on Parenting Stress Cycles: 
    • Part 1 - What a stress cycle is and how it shows up in parenting
    • Part 2 - How to get out of a parenting stress cycle
    • Part 3 - Reframing your child’s behavior (so you don’t get as stressed in the first place)
  • What Happened To You?: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing


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