What is Emotion Regulation?
Emotion regulation is the ability to manage our emotions. Emotion regulation is also known as emotional self-regulation.
There are lots of emotions that we all experience such as happy, sad, and angry plus others. We experience these emotions in response to our thoughts and feelings and because of what is happening around us. We are all different so the same thing could happen to two people and yet they could both feel totally different emotions!
Regulating our emotions is a skill. Some of us learn to regulate our emotions as we grow up. For example, when a child spills their drink, they may be distraught, but as they grow up they no longer become upset by this and instead learn to pick up the cup, clean up the mess and get a new drink. We are all different, so some people find it easier than others to regulate their emotions. It is also important to remember that at times everyone struggles to manage their emotions!
When supporting your child to regulate their emotions, you need to be aware of; your own emotions, your reaction to these emotions, and how they may affect your child’s emotions (also known as co-regulation).
Younger children in particular will need your support to regulate their emotions. This can also be true of older children, particularly in times of crisis.
Difficulties in regulating emotions can result in an ‘overload’ of emotions or frustrations, often causing outbursts. This emotional ‘overflow’ can be caused by many things including anxiety, sensory overload, frustrations, or difficulties in problem-solving/flexibility of thought.
Regulating our emotions involves a number of skills:
- Noticing how our body and mind is feeling. This involves understanding how emotions physically feel inside our body. Noticing the build-up of emotions in our body enables us to identify our own ‘warning signs’.
- Identifying or ‘naming’ our emotions.
- Understanding what can cause our emotions or frustrations.
- Identifying strategies to help us feel better and to prevent our emotions from ‘escalating’.
When the person is over-stimulated and feeling anxious these activities / strategies may help them to feel calmer:
- Sitting under a heavy blanket.
- Having a safe, low stimulus space (e.g. little tent)
- Hands on head and pressing down
- Tucking legs up and squeezing
- Deep pressure massage
- Slow rocking e.g. rocking chair
- Giving themselves a hug
- Lavender scents
- Squeezing and relaxing a small fidget toy
- Squeezing and relaxing face and / or hands
- Sucking a sweet
- Sucking yoghurt / thick milkshake through a straw
- Bear hug
- Gently cooling off the face/body – eg holding an ice cube, chewing an ice cube or a piece of frozen fruit, eating a lolly, have a sip of cold water, gently splashing cold water on face. This stimulates our parasympathetic nervous system and helps our body to calm
- Short burst of exercise – eg running on a spot for 30 seconds, or any form of physical exercise.
- Activities such as blowing bubbles/cotton wools/feathers and watching these float. This can help the child to notice their exhale and so aids with teaching breathing techniques for relaxation (taking deep breaths helps us to feel calmer and more peaceful).
- Paced breathing – breathing in while counting to 2, breathing out counting to 3 (make the breath out longer than the breath in). It is worthy spending time to teaching this to the child gradually and modelling these techniques ourselves, eg whole family takes part in the paced breathing exercise.
What is emotional dysregulation?
Emotional dysregulation is an intense response to an overwhelming situation. It happens when someone becomes completely overwhelmed by their current situation and temporarily loses control of their behaviour. This loss of control can be expressed verbally (eg shouting, screaming, crying), physically (eg kicking, lashing out, biting) or in both ways.
Emotional dysregulation is not the same as a temper tantrum. It is not bad or naughty behaviour. When a person is completely overwhelmed, and their condition means it is difficult to express that in another way, it is understandable that the result is an emotional reaction.
Managing emotional dysregulation:
- Things can get quickly out of control and feel overwhelming
- Need to identify underlying cause – trigger diary – external (environment/behaviours of others) and internal factors (interoceptive awareness)
- Need to build skills to help to recognise and verbalise emotional buildup
Validate the child’s experience and emotions, validate in terms of the child’s history and present situation. Show that you are listening to the child and can see and understand their viewpoint (eg. reflect back what they are saying). Reassure the child and let them know that their feelings, thoughts and urges to act certain way make sense in the particular situation. This makes the child feel valued and understood and encourages them to express themselves, providing more opportunity for understanding of their needs.
- Identify the underlying cause – have to truly feel the emotion to truly identify it
- Help the child to identify specific interoceptive signals to felt emotions
- Feeling the subtle differences between similar emotions – need to recognise the exact emotion to find the right strategy to manage e.g. hunger, tiredness, sadness, boredom
- Encourage use of specific body state and emotion terms when asking a person to identify how they feel e.g. ‘I feel irritated’ – avoid vague/abstract terminology
- Accept that sometimes self-regulation strategies differ between neurotypical and people with ASD – keep an open mind, encourage the child to explore what works for them
- Teaching self-regulation may take a very long time – be patient and practice
If emotions aren’t processed correctly, things can quickly get out of control and feel overwhelming. With the help of the adults around child/ young person they will need support to identify the underlying cause of their dysregulation. This can be done with the use of a Trigger Diary. This diary will identify the external (environment/behaviours of others) and internal factors (interoceptive awareness). Help the child to identify specific interoceptive signals to felt emotions. Encourage the use of specific body states and emotion terms when asking a person to identify how they feel e.g. ‘I feel irritated’ and avoid vague/abstract terminology.
Feeling the subtle differences between similar emotions will help them identify the right strategy to manage it. This will provide awareness to help build skills in recognising and verbalising emotional build-up.
Keep an open mind and encourage the child to explore what works for them. Teaching self-regulation may take a very long time; be patient and practice.
How to support a child who is in a state of emotional distress / emotional dysregulation
- Check the environment and decide if you need to adjust stuff to make it safer; for example, remove items that could be dangerous if thrown, pad hard surfaces with cushions if the person is likely to bang their head and so on.
- Too much talking can be overwhelming when we are feeling distressed so keep communication simple and to a minimum.