For many children with learning and mental disabilities or disorders, controlling and regulating emotions can be one of the most challenging aspects of daily functioning. This is a skill that can be difficult to master for any child but will often require more attention and time for children with special needs, especially autism or ADHD.
The development of emotional regulation can be time demanding and not always enjoyable, especially when attempting to correct behaviors. To make growth more effective and keep your child engaged in emotional development and regulation, turning this skill development into a game will help make these activities fun and encourage consistent practice.
7 Games to Improve Emotional Regulation
Emotional regulation is defined as the ability to recognise and control one’s emotions and respond with appropriate behaviors in varying social settings (Source: Psychology Today). Children develop these skills by watching people around them react and exhibit consistent behaviors in certain situations.
Children who have difficulty with these recognition and control skills may need to engage in activities and use tools to regulate their emotions better. This article suggests some fun games to help improve emotional regulation while also keeping those involved engaged.
Activities to improve emotional regulation should focus on the following areas:
- Recognising emotions (personal and others)
- Showing emotions and understand the meanings behind emotions
- Appropriately responding to emotions
- Using tools to alter highly emotional states
Studies have shown that games successfully aid in social and emotional learning in children. According to clinical psychologists, some games may be more effective than others depending on your child’s temperament and personality (Source: Child Mind Institute). The specific disability or disorder also plays a role in ability levels as well as manifestations of behaviors.
If you are looking for games to help improve emotional regulation, the following seven games are fantastic suggestions:
Emotions and Situation Game Boards Improve Identification of Feelings
For this activity, it will help create a board with a wide range of emotions and feelings to reference. You will include different emotions and feelings and a small photo or symbol that corresponds with that emotion or feeling on the board. This not only makes the activity more game-like but may be more effective in creating a visual representation of the emotions and feelings you are trying to get your child to recognise.
Some examples of emotions and feelings to include on the board are:
If there are specific emotions that your child has difficulty recognising, make sure they are included on the board in varying levels of intensity. For instance, if your child has problems recognising and dealing with anger, you can include different anger levels on the board, such as upset, mad, angry, and furious. This will help them to relate to the feelings they experience.
For this game, you will use this board of emotions and feelings (and corresponding faces) and create a stack of situation cards. Each card should describe varying situations that would warrant specific emotional responses. This game helps to make the child aware of different feelings and understand which situations require certain responses.
Some emotional cards could include:
- ‘When another person takes something from you without asking.’ Typical reactions would be frustrated or angry. Include acceptable answers so the player can accumulate points to ‘win’ or ‘lose’ the game.
- ‘Multiple people are talking at you at the same time, making it difficult to focus.’ Reactions in this situation could be impatient, overwhelmed, or frustrated.
- ‘Getting a good grade on a test.’ Typical reactions would be excited, happy, or even overwhelmed.
You can make situations more difficult based on the child’s age or the types of emotions that are important for them to recognise. The key is to recognise that there are situations in which it is okay to experience negative emotions, but the way they respond to them needs to be addressed.
Emotional Twister Helps Children “Un-Tangle” Their Emotional Responses
The popular game of Twister (where you have to put specific body parts on different coloured dots on a mat) can be an excellent emotional awareness game and keep the activity fun and active! All you will need is the mat, the spinner that dictates which body parts to move, small pieces of paper, and something to write with.
On each piece of paper, you will write down a different environment where different emotions and behaviors would be required. While you try to avoid the red zone as much as possible, a yellow zone may be more tolerable in certain settings.
Here are some different environments you can include on the pieces of paper:
- Sports Field
- Homework Time
- A friend’s house
The different coloured dots on the map represent varying emotional states that act similarly to a traffic stoplight. Using this stoplight approach will associate specific colours with different phases of emotional intensity. These colours apply to various daily experiences, where some colours are more acceptable in certain situations over others.
These are the meanings behind each of the colours on the mat:
- Green: A person is in a calm, happy, and focused emotional state.
- Yellow: This is a warning of increased emotions and a growing sense of alertness. Children are still in control of their emotions in these stages but are more likely to be experiencing anxiousness, stress, silliness, or excitement. These emotions may be more appropriate when quiet and focus is not required.
- Red: A person is in an intense emotional state that may be incredibly disruptive or inappropriate, given the situation. Emotions experienced in this zone are more in line with anger and rage.
- Blue: These are recharge points or times with little emotional triggering. This can manifest itself as disinterest, lack of energy, or boredom. Emotions that are described as down or sad are usually placed in this category.
To play the game, you will draw a piece of paper and spin the spinner. This will tell you which body part you’ll use. Based on what the piece of paper says, the child will identify which emotion they should display in that setting and then place their limb on the correct colour. It is recommended for 2-3 players to allow people to get twisted while playing.
Freeze Dance Improves Self-Control
Emotional regulation is also closely tied to self-control and being able to manage your physical and emotional states. This game may not seem like it is work to improve emotional regulation, making it more fun for children to play! This is a simple game that can be played for a few minutes to emphasize control of both body and emotions.
You’ll only need music and the ability to pause and restart it frequently. This game may be more fun for children when multiple people participate, even if it is a sibling or another parent.
When music is playing, the child will be encouraged to move and dance. This should allow them to exhibit joyful and happy emotions as well. When the music stops, everyone participating should freeze and revert to a quiet and serious mood. This contrast between silly and serious further helps to present these differences and promote control in both scenarios.
To further test control and self-regulation, make the dancing a bit more challenging. For fast-tempo songs, increase the pace of the dancing and slow down the dancing for slow songs. This adds additional stimuli, which can often be a trigger for emotional dysregulation. It also adds another layer of complexity to make the game more fun and engaging.
“Emotions” Easter Egg Hunt is a Fun Way to Present Feelings
You don’t have to save Easter egg hunts just for a holiday! This activity will require a bit of preparation, both in preparing the plastic eggs and then hiding them. The fun in this game comes from finding the eggs and problem solving using emotional regulation skills. You will need plastic eggs, a permanent marker, and a couple of baskets or containers for this activity.
Each egg will have a face drawn on it with a different emotion. Draw varying eyes and expressions on the egg tops and different mouths on the bottom. Have the participants find the eggs and determine which emotion is being expressed on the eggs. Once they have chosen an emotion, have them put it into a container that corresponds with the stoplight colours and their symbolism.
Remember that the basic categories for the colours are:
- Green: Positive emotions, including happiness, satisfaction, content, and focus, are deemed green because they are calm emotions that are acceptable for most social settings.
- Yellow: These emotions are slightly more heightened and should be approached with caution. They are typically in line with anxiety, nervousness, or frustration.
- Red: Intense emotions are feelings of anger, rage, or terror, and they are usually associated with tantrums or outbursts.
- Blue: Sad or bored feelings that lack energy or much feeling are categorised here.
Beyond difficult hiding spots to find the eggs, you can also make the emotional recognition more challenging. Mix up the tops and bottoms on the eggs to form new emotions and allow participants to rearrange them to find their original match. The originals will correspond in colour but will be harder to match with many eggs (this will test their ability to recognize).
Music Can Begin a Conversation About Emotions
According to researchers, music triggers a wide range of emotions (Source: University of Southern California). Different genres and songs may evoke varying feelings through a physical impact on our neurotransmitters. Using music as a tool to look at these feelings and how they impact our emotions helps regulation.
Talking through feelings and moods is another way to engage in the identification of emotional regulation. A fun way to do this is through music! Select a playlist of music that varies in both genre and tempo and covers various topics. Take some time to sit with your child (or dance) and listen to the playlist together.
After playing a song (either a portion or the full tune), discuss how the song makes them feel and if they can identify why it makes them feel that way. This game allows children to make associations between music and real-life events and allows them to talk about emotions in more detail. You can even use the emotion board to continue reinforcing the expressions.
This is a more relaxed activity to play after a long day or as a much-needed study break to sit back and talk about the music they like (and don’t like)!
Brain Games Can De-Escalate Tantrums
Tantrums and meltdowns are intense emotional reactions that often present themselves as outbursts. For those with ADHD or autism, everyday situations result in these reactions much more often. Tantrums are typically used to gain attention or fulfill a need, while meltdowns are stress reactions to feeling overwhelmed (Source: WebMD).
Practicing brain games can be fun and useful when your child does have a tantrum. It quickly diverts their attention from a stressor or trigger to a small game that gets them to think quickly on their feet.
Here are some fun and quick brain games you can try before or during a tantrum:
- Name something: Think of any category and have your child quickly name five things within that category. For example, ‘Name five things that are blue’ or ‘Name five things that swim.’ These quickly make them think about entirely unrelated topics and can relieve the outburst.
- Human thesaurus: Choose an adjective and have them name as many synonyms for that word as they can in 15 seconds. For example, ‘good’ would achieve responses such as ‘awesome,’ ‘super,’ ‘fantastic,’ etc.
- Letter Words: Make your child think quickly by having them name as many words as possible that start with a specific letter in 30 seconds.
These are simple games, but they are important for multiple reasons. Not only will they potentially redirect attention away from a tantrum or meltdown, but they can be practiced all the time to keep thinking sharp. Some of these activities may be challenging at first but will become easier with more practice.
You may find that a child may not want to engage in any activity at all while in a stressful, emotional state when you try to play during a tantrum. Encouraging them to breathe and then trying the activity may be more successful. After playing the game, you may find that they forgot about the entire incident altogether.
Emotional Charades Helps Promote Recognition of Emotions
Another important strategy for improving emotional regulation is the observation of others and their emotions. This can be done by simply watching people around you, but this doesn’t make for the most enjoyable game. You can still achieve the same impact with a modified version of charades, where emotions are being acted out for the child to identify with visual cues.
You will need someone to act out the different emotions for the child. You can choose whether or not to make it a silent game or include sound effects. It is recommended to start silently, which will require the child to work harder to identify the different physical markers that are associated with different feelings and emotions.
Not only is it fun for the child to guess the different emotions, but it also serves as a great way for them to share why they chose certain emotions and reinforce the physicality that is associated with each.
Scaffolding as a Learning Tool for Emotional Regulation
Scaffolding is the support system used to help reinforce a building during construction. The same principles can be applied to teaching and helping a student grow (Source: Edutopia). While support is needed initially to help the child understand the differences and nuances of emotional learning, slowly taking away the scaffolding encourages independent growth.
As children master tasks, the scaffolding (support) can be taken away slowly or moved onto more difficult concepts. Allowing the child to learn and grow independently will help show real improvement in their mastery of new emotional regulation skills. If consistent support is provided in every situation, it will be difficult for them to grow and model appropriate behaviors independently.
Identifying where the child is at in their emotional regulation journey and their capabilities for growth are the first steps in helping to add support where it is necessary and being able to remove the scaffolding when it is time for greater challenges to allow the child to work through some of these difficulties on their own.
Approaching Emotional Regulation as a Parent
It will require time and patience to help your child improve their emotional regulation skills. This article provides you with some fun games that focus primarily on identifying and understanding various emotions to improve these skills and make it easier to apply to their everyday lives.
The goal of these games is to take this greater knowledge and recognition and model it more appropriately through their own behaviors. Relating these various emotions to specific situations in everyday life will allow children to be more successful in their social interactions. Doing extra work and practice through games is a fun way to encourage growth and development.