Learning to deal with emotional responses is one of the toughest parts of the human experience. Emotional regulation is something that most children struggle through as they develop. However, it seems that some, more than others, have a difficult time managing ‘big feelings’ like anger, sadness, and fear.
When emotions hit, they will naturally activate regulation strategies. If these strategies are unhealthy or destructive (i.e., throwing a fit, breaking things) children are likely to be labeled as ‘behavior problems’ or suffer in social situations. This can lead to issues that outlast childhood. Thankfully, parents, teachers, and caring professionals can teach children healthier strategies that will allow them to better handle emotional responses as they arise.
What is emotional regulation?
Emotional regulation is the ability to manage one’s own emotional state in a healthy way. When a child’s emotional state is regulated, they can deal with emotions appropriately.
For example, imagine a five-year-old is playing with her brother, and he accidentally breaks her favorite toy. She starts to feel upset. Feelings of sadness and disappointment rush in. How would she respond? A regulated child would feel her feelings without judgment, validate them within herself, and then move forward. She might cry or even throw the toy in the trash can with a bit of forcefulness. But this incident probably wouldn’t turn into a catastrophic meltdown–unless the child struggles with
Emotional regulation is not a skill that we are born with but one we must develop as a natural part of development. It is also taught by modeling, which is why children with emotionally regulated parents seem to develop healthy regulation strategies much easier.
Research shows that certain children seem to develop this ability easily (with the help of healthy caregivers), while others have a more challenging time.
Children who struggle with emotional regulation issues may (but certainly not necessarily):
- Have experienced trauma
- Have been adopted or fostered
- Have an ADHD or ASD diagnosis
- Have a parent who struggles with emotional dysregulation
When issues with emotions spill over into adulthood, there is an increased likelihood that what was once seen as an emotional maturity issue can develop into more serious emotional dysregulation. This can lead to problems with:
- Severe mood swings
- Intense shame and anger
- Anxiety and depression
- Substance abuse
Helping children avoid lifelong struggles with emotional regulation is a process that involves two major approaches: The modeling of the ‘3 R’s’ and teaching of healthy coping strategies.
The ‘3 R’s’
Caregivers can help their children deal with ‘big feelings’ like anger and frustration by doing the following:
- Regulate the child by using physical touch (i.e., hugging, soothing) or physical activity (i.e., breathing techniques) so that they feel safe and calm
- Relate to their feelings and validate their emotions by saying something like, “I know this is really hard and that you’re upset right now.”
- Reason with the child, but only after they are calm and have been validated. This is the time when you can offer alternative ways to deal with their emotions (coping strategies.)
It’s important to remember that this is a step-by-step process. It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to reason with a child if they can’t see that you relate to what they’re feeling. Similarly, they won’t feel that you really understand until they’re physically regulated.
Emotional regulation is all about trading an unhealthy response to emotion for a healthy one. Helping children regulate usually involves getting their bodies busy. If you are close to the child and feel comfortable, a hug might do the trick.
Other times, you may need to encourage them to do an activity. Here are some favorites:
- Deep breathing with long exhales for at least 60 seconds
- Wall pushups or other simple exercises
- Drawing/writing about what they’re feeling on a big piece of paper
- Mindful walking while noticing things you see, hear, smell, taste, or touch
- Performing a mindful body scan
- Do some camel poses (or any yoga pose)
- Squeeze a ball, work a puzzle, stretch
- Eat a snack, hug a stuffed animal, blow bubbles
Once the body is calm, you can talk with your child about their emotions in an understanding way. Usually, this involves helping them name their emotions and then validating the way they feel. For example, you might say something like, “I know you were feeling very emotional a few minutes ago,” or ask a question like, “What were you feeling when XYZ happened?”
If the child is having a hard time labeling the emotion, have them look at an emotion chart or list. Make sure you express that there are no ‘good or bad’ emotions. That all emotions are normal and natural. Stress that although our responses to emotions might need to be changed, it is okay to feel what they are feeling. This helps children avoid experiencing shame and suppression of their emotions.
Here are some questions you can ask when talking to a child about their emotions:
- What kind of mood are you in right now?
- What are the reasons for this mood?
- What were you thinking when XYZ happened?
- What were you feeling when XYZ happened?
- Would you say you were more mad or hurt (replace with other emotions)
The main thing to remember when relating emotionally is not to point fingers or place blame but come from a place of understanding.
Once the first two R’s are in place, you can work on reasoning with your child and helping them come up with a plan for the future. This is where the question “How would I like to act the next time this happens?” comes into play. Options include those you used during the regulating stage as well as:
- Talk with friends
- Walk away
- Play a game (Simon says, freeze)
- Build with blocks
- Get a drink of water
- Chill in a cool-down corner
- Act out emotions with toys
You can also help them identify triggers, see any fallacies in the way they were thinking, gather more information about what was happening, think of the situation in a new way, increase their emotional vocabulary, and find acceptance.
The Bottom Line
Helping your child learn to regulate their emotions is one of the best things you can do for their future. Sometimes it takes a team to actually see progress. A lot of the activities that help with this process can be supported through occupational therapy. This includes:
- Fine Motor Skills
- Play Skills
- Social Skills
- Sensory Processing
- Balance and Coordination
If your child is struggling, a licensed occupational therapist can help you come up with a plan for putting these things into place. If you’d like to speak to someone, reach out today
Dr. Mary Elizabeth Dean is an Author, Teacher, and Entrepreneur. She has degrees in science, a master’s degree in business administration, and a doctorate in education.