Emotional regulation is a challenging topic, especially with kids. Emotional regulation is the process of understanding your own emotions/feelings and reacting to these feelings. The basic emotions we feel are happy, angry, and sad. But it is more complicated than that. We also feel frustrated, tired, anxious, jealous, excited, depressed…etc. It can be scary to talk about feelings and emotions for adults and kids alike. We may feel uncomfortable, shy, or embarrassed when we talk about our emotions and feelings, even with people we are closest to.
But it’s okay to have emotions and feelings, and that makes us human beings. We all have good days and bad days. It is important for us to learn to manage ourselves with proper strategies. It is also important to talk about emotions and understand feelings.
Emotional development stages:
Infants at this age are learning to express their basic emotions with body language, such as crying or cooing
Safety and security are the priority for emotional regulation. Provide a safe and secure environment to infants.
Children at this age are developing more language skills and more independence. They begin to express their emotions through words and body language. They are also learning to regulate their emotions and experimenting with different ways to express themselves. Oftentimes we will see children throwing things or hitting people.
Expressing emotions is the priority for emotional regulation. Help children to label their emotions and express their needs and wants.
Children at preschool ages are learning to express their emotions and feelings with more language. This is also the stage where they begin to learn self-regulation. Going to school provides a social environment for children to learn and develop new coping skills with emotional regulation.
Regulating and managing emotions via calming strategies is the priority for emotional regulation.
What is emotional dysregulation?
Emotional dysregulation refers to a person’s difficulty or inability to regulate their emotions. Including these: (Gratz & Roemer, 2004)
A lack of awareness, understanding, and acceptance of emotions
A lack of adaptive strategies for regulating emotions (the intensity and/or duration)
An unwillingness to experience emotional distress whilst pursuing desired goals
An inability to engage in goal-directed behaviors when experiencing distress
How to help kids with emotional regulation?
We need to understand our bodies first. We need to understand what’s going on with our bodies (interception) in order to regulate/calm ourselves.
For emotional regulation, we need to understand our emotions, which means understanding our feelings and what’s going on with our bodies.
**Interoception is a person’s ability to understand and feel what’s going on inside their bodies. For example, we are able to feel hungry, thirsty, or a need to use the bathroom.
How can we talk about feelings with our kids?
“I see you’re feeling frustrated” “it’s frustrating”
Educate that it is okay to have emotions.
“It’s okay to feel frustrated/mad”
Make a connection by narrating your emotions.
Ex: If mom is having a bad day, say “I feel mad because…” (my car broke down, I stubbed my toe, my phone is dead, etc.)
Coach them to express emotions and use strategies
“I am mad”
Taking a deep breath, taking a break,
Model and role play with your kid.
“When I feel mad, I can take a deep breath”.
Family time and quiet time. Share a high and a low from the day.
Some tips to help neurodivergent kids:
Story books about emotions or feelings
Routine and structure
Give expectations for unfamiliar and/or unexpected situations
Mindfulness, sensory breaks, exercise
For kids with impulsive behaviors, it’s hard for them to “stop, think and act”. Their brains go too fast and often do things without reason. Coaching a child to use critical thinking and to understand consequences will help them with impulse control.
Kids learn feelings and emotions through education and observation. They observe what parents, family and teachers do. Modeling is important for kids to learn about emotional regulation.
Kids don’t know what is going on with their body. They struggle with communicating and expressing their feelings and needs. Yelling, screaming, scratching are the behaviors that they use to try to control their body and get rid of the bad feelings.
An example of visual chart for ASD kids.
An example of emotion chart
How to help my kid?
They will need guidance and support. Being able to identify the emotions and needs is the first and most important step to express themselves and ask for help.
Giving them guidance on strategies. For this diagnosed with ASD, it may take longer and a visual schedule is often beneficial.
For kids who are neurodivergent, please consult your occupational therapist for individualized sensory treatment.
Gratz, K. L., & Roemer, L. (2004). Multidimensional assessment of emotion regulation and dysregulation: Development, factor structure, and initial validation of the difficulties in emotion regulation scale. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 26(1), 41-54.
I am proud to be an occupational therapist. Ella Wu, OTD, OTR/L Doctor of Occupational Therapy