Self-regulation is the ability to manage your own emotions and behavior in a way that matches the demands of a given situation. All of us have had trouble at some time or another checking our emotions when we feel heated or excited. But learning to resist highly-charged emotional responses, calm yourself when you’re upset, adjust your expectations, and handle frustration without an outburst? That’s really a lot to ask of any child in a world that is so unpredictable – but it’s especially tough when a child struggles with a condition like autism, down syndrome, or other disability, disorder, or delay.
Why Do Some Kids Struggle With Self-Regulation?
Difficulties with self-regulation can be displayed in a number of ways, depending on the child. Some kids will have an instantly major reaction to something with no real build-up. They sort of “explode,” and aren’t able to inhibit that behavior response. Other kids will allow distress to build up for a time, but can only take it for so long before we see an emotional outburst. Even when those of us on the outside can see it building, we have little notion of how to stop it.
In either case, what we’re talking about is more than a simple tantrum, which every kid goes through, particularly in the toddler stage. Difficulty with self-regulation is a persistent, ongoing issue involving behavior that isn’t developmentally appropriate. It’s one thing for your child to throw a tantrum when they’re 2. It’s another for your child to be regularly melting down at age 5 or older.
What’s critical for us as a therapy team is help kids learn how to safely handle those big emotions, finding ways to adequately express them in a way that is more effective, less disruptive, and safer than a meltdown. Doing so requires we understand the why of the behavior.
In our experience, issues with emotional control are some combination of individual temperament, learned behavior, and the lack of communication/social skills needed to effectively communicate their emotions otherwise. Children with conditions like ADHD, autism, ODD, anxiety, or other conditions, learning to manage emotions is especially challenging and requires more outside help.
Teaching Kids Key Emotional Control Techniques
Learning emotional self-regulation is an important life skill, and some kids need more help to learn it than others.
We typically start by teaching young children to recognize the sensations and feelings in their body, and then putting those feelings into thoughts. How does your head feel? How does your skin feel? How does your heart feel? What is your breath doing? What “zone” of emotion are you in? (This can be color-coordinated for younger kids, with very basic, “red =mad, yellow=silly, blue=sad, green=happy,” etc.) Awareness is critical before change.
Once they master this, we can start teaching them about the “size of a problem.” Keeping it simple, we measure some problems as “big,” some “medium,” and some “small.” Then we talk about how to measure reactions in a similar way – big, medium, or small. When small problems have big reactions, that’s when we have the most trouble. The key is to try getting the size of the reaction to match the size of the problem. When it doesn’t, we ask them to reflect. Repetition on this is key.
Another strategy we use early on is to break challenging activities – the ones we know are going to lead to serious frustration – into smaller, more manageable parts. Our occupational therapists can help create social stories for this too, preparing them for each step and spelling out exactly what is expected of them.
Each time they act out, wait until they’re calm, and then ask: What went wrong? Why? How can we fix it for next time? How can we self-advocate for things we need or want without having a meltdown? This helps to create a pattern of mindfulness and thinking about the impact of their reactions. We also try to regularly remind them that at any point, they can “change the channel” of their emotions, by doing things like taking deep breaths, counting to 10, stretching, or taking a break.
Once they can tie feelings to thoughts, reflect on what went wrong, and advocate for themselves, then we can start working on affirmations and positive self-talk (i.e., “I can do this,” “I am brave,” “I am ok,”) etc.
If self-regulation is a skill with which your child struggles, we can help!
Therapy & Wellness Connection – your connection to a life without limitations – provides occupational therapy, speech therapy, behavior therapy, and homeschooling, tutoring, and social skills groups to children in Brecksville-Broadview Heights, Cleveland, Akron, and surrounding communities. We also offer summer camp, day programs, vocational counseling and more. Call us at (330) 748-4807 or send us an email.
How Can We Help Kids With Self-Regulation? Child Mind Institute
More Blog Entries:
Brecksville ABA Therapists Offer “Time-Out” Alternatives, Feb. 6, 2022, Cleveland Occupational Therapy Blog