Advice Column, Recently, Toddler

Being flexible and regulating emotions

  • Toptots Head Office
  • Category Advice Column, Recently, Toddler

The world we live in is fast-paced and unpredictable. We are exposed to constant changes, unmet expectations, challenging situations and unexpected bumps in the road. Our personality has a large role to play in the way that we manage these situations i.e. type A versus type B personality’s.  However, we all need to develop resilience to cope with whatever life throws at us.

Resilience is developed through being exposed to these changes or challenges, having the tools to cope with them and then successfully working through them. Thus, we build confidence that when the next challenge comes along, we will be able to cope with it. Being flexible is the ability to change how you think about things (i.e. not being rigid in your thinking) and to deal with changes in your plans and expectations.

Self-regulation is the ability to manage your behavioural and emotional responses to these situations. Inflexibility often = emotional outbursts.

Between 2 and 5 years a child can shift actions based on changing rules e.g. run outside, but not inside; understand turn-taking; shift attention; cope with small changes; be comfortable with new people and places, though may want parents close by; be fairly flexible in their play time. By 5 years, they should be able to play cooperatively with other children. By 6 to 9 years, have a good awareness of the consequences of their actions; understand the difference between needs and wants; have more of an understanding of time. After this they should be able to separate their actions and feelings and take more responsibility for their actions.

How do we identify challenges with flexibility and emotional regulation?

The following behaviours may be observed:

  • Getting upset if they can’t be first in the line.
  • Tattles on others who aren’t following the rules.
  • Has difficulty coping with sudden/ unexpected changes.
  • Takes a long time to adjust to a new routine.
  • Is not comfortable with new people or in new places.
  • Will only eat food prepared/ set out in a particular way.
  • Has difficulty transitioning between tasks.
  • Has difficulty transitioning between what they want to do and what someone tells them to do.
  • Is overly-emotional and has difficulty calming down.
  • Over-reacts to situations.
  • Want to be in charge of games/ boss other children around.
  • Can cope for the morning at school, but have meltdowns at home because they have used up all their reserves.

How to encourage more flexibility and emotional control: 

Have a consistent daily routine (not rigid, but just based on the important things) so that they have a general sense of security and safety within that routine.

Try not to encourage habits that will make life difficult for your child and cause disappoint or meltdowns if they can’t be maintained e.g. only eating off a certain plate or only drinking from a certain cup etc. Encourage your child to make small changes to increase their adaptability e.g. “every Friday, we are all going to eat off paper plates” or if they only like one type of cereal, help them to find another alternative cereal that they will find acceptable.

Prepare them for changes, so that they can learn to handle them calmly i.e. give them a 5 minute and then a 1 minute warning before they have to change activities e.g. from watching television to going for a bath. If it’s a big change e.g. going to a new school, prepare them by showing them pictures of the school, the uniform etc. This makes change seem far less intimidating.

When they do cope well with a change or a new situation, make a point of praising them for it e.g. “You were so brave on your first day of school, and you’ve already made a new friend!”

Implement fun changes e.g. sleeping outside in the tent for a night; eating a picnic in the garden; trying out different foods together; going to different shopping centres or play venues; stop somewhere nice on the way home from school now and again etc.


In pre-school aged children, their mood can still be affected a great deal by their physical state. Therefore, this needs to be considered and taken into account. If a child is tired or hungry or over-stimulated, they will find it harder to cope with changes and will be more prone to meltdowns. Choose your moments i.e. don’t implement big changes when they are tired!  Teach your children a vocabulary of feeling words, so that it is easier for them to express when they are tired or scared or frustrated.
Don’t give in to tantrums… this reinforces that tantrums work to get what you want!

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