Emotional regulation is not a skill that we are born with. Throughout our lifetime, we learn to understand our emotions, why we are feeling that way and how to manage our emotions in different situations.
When children are young, they rely on parents and surrounding adults to meet their needs and help them manage their emotions. When they get older, they might be able to deal with certain situations independently and other times, they might still need help from an adult. As you grow up, you manage to deal with your emotions in a range of difficult situations.
Of course, we are still human. Some days, we might have better emotional regulation compared to other days. Our ability to cope emotionally depends on different factors, including our fatigue levels, mood levels, the people involved and the situation.
In this article, we unpack what is emotion regulation skills, why it is important and how to develop emotional regulation skills.
What is Emotional Regulation?
Emotion Regulation is “an awareness and understanding of one’s emotions and their impact on behavior, and the ability to manage those emotions in a positive way.” (Spokane Regional Health District, n.d.).
Emotional Regulation Skills
Emotional self-regulation requires a range of skills. Emotional development is not done overnight. Therefore, there it is important to foster these skills throughout your child’s development.
Emotion regulation skills include:
- Recognising physical signs of different emotions,
- Labelling emotions, both positive emotions and negative emotions,
- Understanding cause and effect, and
- Being able to control these emotions within a situation.
The inability to do one of these skills, makes emotion regulation very difficult. Let’s have a look at these skills in more depth.
The first skill to learn is to label and identify emotions. The child needs to be able to accurately say in words how they are feeling. This requires them to understand the differences between emotions, including the difference between sad and angry, scared and nervous, etc.
It also requires self awareness so they can recognize these emotions within themselves.
It is important for children, especially in the younger age groups, to learn how to label emotions in a way that is both appropriate and accurate. For example, when a child says “I am really angry”, they would need to understand what is anger and recognize that they are feeling it.
Once the child can accurately label emotions, then they are more likely to understand what is behind each emotion. For example, when you are angry at someone at school because their behavior towards you has bothered you, this may not be addressed by saying “I am really angry”, but it would help to understand that your feelings of frustration and annoyance have been triggered because of this person’s behavior.
When they experience a negative emotion, they need to have an appropriate emotional response to that emotion. They develop this once the child can label their emotions. Then they need to understand how their behaviors and feelings might impact themselves and others.
For example, if a child is describing feeling angry at someone for calling them silly, but they go over there and hit them, this is obviously not the most appropriate way to handle their anger.
For a child to develop appropriate emotional responses, they need to develop emotional control, which is the ability to stop and think about how they are feeling. Having the skills to stop and think can be hard for those who have impulse control difficulties.
If they can identify how they are feeling and understand cause and effect, they can stop and think about different scenarios and what might happen in each scenario. Once they can accurately think about what might happen, including the pros and cons of each scenario, they can choose the best scenario to act out.
Understanding emotions also requires the child to understand that their actions impact other people.
The next step is for children to manage their emotions in an appropriate way. They need socially appropriate strategies for how to handle different scenarios and ways of calming themselves down when they are feeling certain emotions.
Everyone has different ways to effectively help their manage their emotions. Therefore, when we work with children, it is important for them to try different calming strategies and see what works best for them.
Additionally, everyone might have different strategies in different environments. For example, someone might manage their emotions by punching a punching bag but they only have that in the home environment. Therefore, it is important for them to also develop some appropriate strategies in different environments, using different tools.
Why is emotional regulation important?
Well-developed emotion regulation skills are important to develop relationships with other people and to interact in the social environment. It also allows a healthy growth of managing our inner thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
Poor emotion regulation skills can make it hard for people to work, go to school, develop social relationships and can lead to poor mental health.
Impact on work and school
Individuals who have poor emotion regulation can find it hard to manage day-to-day activities, including work and school.
A person attending work or school who has poor emotion regulation skills might have a hard time dealing with stressful situations. At work, they might be unable to manage their emotions if a supervisor has provided some feedback regarding work, or if there are urgent deadlines to be met. At school, it might be if someone has made fun of them in class or if they get a bad mark at school.
If they do not have any positive coping strategies to manage the stressful situations, they may not be able to deal with the stresses and frustrations that come with the situation. They may deal with the situation outwardly which means they might lash out at other people or show anger. Whereas, some might deal with the situation inwardly and “bottle up” their feelings which is not beneficial for their own mental health.
Impact on relationships
People who struggle to regulate their emotions are more likely to have problems within their relationships. Those who experience difficulties managing their emotions may not understand how their emotions are affecting others or be able to calmly manage when they are feeling upset. This can lead to a lack of intimacy and trust between people.
Impact on mental health
Inability to control emotions and the impact on social relationships can have a negative impact on a person’s mental health. Some people who have not developed healthy strategies may choose unhealthy behaviors to cope with, like substance abuse.
How can Occupational therapists help Emotional Regulation?
Occupational therapists help people participate in their daily activities. As mentioned, poor emotion regulation can impact a person to work, go to school, and develop friendships. Therefore, Occupational Therapists can help individuals develop emotion regulation skills so they can participate in these occupations that are important for their daily life.
Pediatric Occupational Therapists help children recognize emotions, learn to read other people’s emotions and develop strategies to manage their emotions.
Occupational Therapists also understand a range of health conditions and how that might impact a person’s ability to learn these skills. For example, a person with autism might have low awareness of reading other people’s body language and cues, and therefore occupational therapists can help this person work on developing these skills.
In particular, Occupational Therapists can help support children who have emotion regulation difficulties and sensory processing difficulties. Sometimes behaviors arising from sensory processing difficulties can be seen as behavioral outbursts, it is important for adults to know the difference between the two, as there are different ways to manage these situations.
How can Psychologists help Emotion Regulation?
Although Occupational Therapists and Psychologists can help your child develop emotion regulation skills, there are some slight differences.
Clinical psychology can help children manage difficult emotions and understand why they are having these thoughts and strong emotions. Psychologists are well trained in helping people change negative thought patterns.
If your child has mental health issues or you suspect some mental health issues, then psychologists will be able to help them.
What causes poor emotional regulation?
There are many reasons that can cause individuals to have difficulties with emotion regulation. Some of which include:
- Currently experiencing an intense event, such as a personal loss, financial issues, or death in the family
- Pass exposure to violence or abuse which might lead to low empathy for others and difficulty regulating emotions.
- Having a health issue such as ADHD, autism, or anxiety disorder
- Having a learning disability which results in difficulty understanding emotions and regulating emotions.
- May have an intellectual disability that limits their ability to understand how others are feeling and being able to regulate their own emotion
- Could be going through a difficult social transition such as moving schools or being separated from their parents for the first time which manifests in negative feelings or negative emotions.
Difference between self-regulation and emotional regulation
Self-regulation is the ability to have emotional control, a level of arousal (energy level), and motivation. Part of self-regulation is to be able to control your emotions, which is emotional regulation.
These terms can be used interchangeably but do mean different things.
Difference between emotional regulation and sensory processing
Some children who have sensory processing issues have trouble developing appropriate emotional regulation skills, in particular, if they have trouble with interoception. Interoception is the ability to understand the internal signs like feeling our warmness in our cheeks, “butterflies in our tummy” etc. Therefore children who have poor interoception may not be able to recognize the physical signs for them to recognize their emotions and feelings.
It is also important to recognize the difference between sensory processing meltdowns and difficulty with emotional regulation. Children who experience sensory processing issues may have difficulty controlling their emotions and their corresponding behaviors due to the inability to control the sensory environment around them.
Children who experience sensory processing issues may display fight or flight response behaviors like withdrawal from the classroom, running out of the room, or ignoring instructions. However, this is seen as a coping mechanism for the sensory processing disorder, rather than behavioral issues around emotional regulation.
In saying this, sensory tools can also help children develop regulation even if they have sensory processing difficulties.
What is Co-regulation?
For young children who have not yet developed emotional regulation skills, they rely on the adults around them to help with their emotions.
For example, when you have an infant who is crying. The caregiver will often pick up the child, give them a cuddle, making cooing sounds and reassure that they are safe. At times, they might also give them some milk if they are hungry. When the child sees the caregivers’ similing face and soft voice, then their reaction will reflect the caregiver.
This is co-regulation. When the child is feeling unsettled or dysregulated, the adult comes in and gives them what they need. This allows the child to regulate and control their emotions.
What are Emotional Regulation Strategies?
As mentioned above, for a person to have emotional regulation skills, they need to be able to identify the emotion, understand how their emotions and behaviours might impact the situation, and managing/controlling their emotions.
Depending on what area of difficulty your child is having, there are different strategies to work on. We have divided the strategies into identifying emotions, understanding emotions, and managing emotions.
Before you use these strategies, it is important to practice these strategies when your child is feeling calm and regulated. Do not teach your child these strategies when they are already feeling upset and dysregulated.
It can be easier for children to learn to identify emotions in others before they are able to identify it within themselves.
- Ask them how they are feeling throughout the day
- As an adult, you can show them your feelings and how you manage them. For example, if you are feel frustrated, you can show them what you look like when you are feeling frustrated and say “I’m feel frustrated because you’ve walked in the house with muddy shoes and I just cleaned the house”.
- Use pretend play with characters. Act out a situation and see if your child can recognise how your character is feeling.
- When watching a show or reading a book, ask the child if they can guess how each character is feeling.
This skill requires children to think about a situation and how that might impact other people.
- Talk to your child about how their feelings and actions impact other people’s feelings.
- If your child is scared of a situation, you might talk about a past situation when they felt scared and how they have overcome that.
- Talk through your thinking process with your child. For example, when you are feeling tired, you might say “I’m feeling tired today. I might have a drink of water and splash some water on my face to wake myself up.”
- If your child is feeling anxious, you can say “Did you know that when I feel nervous, it’s because something bad could happen and I don’t want anything to happen. How do you think I felt when we started driving and we couldn’t find our way?”
- Develop self-reflective skills – After a situation has resolved and your child is feeling calm, talk through the situation to help your child develop self-reflective skills.
It is important for them to try different calming strategies and see what works best for them.
- Yoga – this combines physical activity with breathing to help children regulate their emotions. It is also a great opportunity for parents and children to have some “quiet time”.
- Heavy work exercises – heavy work exercises like stomping, jumping, pushing, pulling can produce a calming effect.
- Mindfulness – this strategy teaches the child to focus on the senses that are happening around them.
- Breathing exercises – teaching children to learn to breathe deeply allows them to regulate
- Do some artwork or drawing – have an activity that they are interested in to redirect them to
- Encourage them to have some quiet time – If they need some additional time to think or calm down, they can have some quiet time
- Have a calm-down corner – This could be a place where they can feel safe to calm down. It might include some pillows and some of their favorite things.
- Talk to their favorite character – If your child has a favorite toy or character, they might want to talk to their character about how they are feeling.
- Develop positive self talk – positive self talk, like “I can do this” and “I am brave” can help children regulate emotions in different scenarios by themselves.
- Listen to music
- Physical exercise like running and swimming – apart from developing physical health, exercise can also help regulation emotions
- Write in a journal – encourage them to write or draw in their journal where they can feel comfortable to reflect on their emotions and behaviors
General emotion regulation strategies
- Identify triggers that make your child have negative feelings. If we know the reasons why your child is feeling certain ways, we can address them more directly.
- Have a good sleep routine and sufficient sleep throughout the night.
- Develop a supportive environment where your child is encouraged to talk through their feelings with you
- Understand your own emotions and emotional reactions as an adult. Your child can see how you react to negative situations and may consciously or unconsciously mirror these strategies to help manage their own emotions.
Emotion regulation is not an easy skill to develop. For children to develop these emotion regulation skills, they need help from surrounding adults so they can manage their emotions, both positive emotions, and negative emotions.
Support your child in learning self regulation skills so they can start understanding and managing their emotions independently.
Emotional Regulation. (n.d.). Retrieved 9 November 2021, from https://srhd.org/media/documents/Emotional20Regulation1.pdf