What is emotional regulation and why is it important?
As humans, we all need to be able to regulate ourselves. Our body regulates some of our systems automatically; the autonomic nervous system regulates our breathing, heart rate, and digestion without us having to learn how, or think about doing it on a day to day basis. When it comes to regulating emotions, it can be a little more complicated; having the ability to recognise and manage a range of emotions is not something which comes naturally and is something which we instead must develop as we grow up. While it may feel easy, and even automatic for some, emotional regulation is something which many individuals struggle to develop and use effectively. Emotional regulation is a fancy term to describe the way that we recognise and respond to our emotions. Gross et al. (1998) gave the following definition for this:
“Emotional regulation refers to the process by which individuals influence which emotions they have, when they have them, and how they experience and express their feelings. Emotional regulation can be automatic or controlled, conscious or unconscious, and may have effects at one or more points in the emotion producing process.”
It is important for us to experience a full range of emotions, which is why many believe that there are no inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’ emotions. For some, however, it may seem as though they switch between emotions constantly or have no control over how they are feeling. For others, it may be difficult to recognise exactly how they are feeling, or to understand the link between this emotion and their behaviour. This is the case with many of the children we support. There is a myriad of strategies to support with emotional regulation, many of them sensory based, to meet our basic self-regulation needs.
Here are some of our top tips and strategies for promoting emotional regulation at home:
- Use modelling
The first step to developing awareness of emotions is understanding that everyone experiences a range of emotions and that this is normal and okay. Use emotions-based language in your day to day discussions. It can be useful to describe the physical sensation to help children to understand how they might be feeling.
For instance “I found that quite difficult, it made me a bit nervous. My tummy felt tight and I felt a bit shaky”.
- Recognise your child’s body and facial clues and give prompts
While every child is different, there are usually some facial or body language clues which can tell us how a child is feeling. Pointing these out using neutral language can help your child to recognise these in themselves. For example, “I noticed that your hands are in fists, is that because you’re annoyed at something?”.
- Work together to develop strategies and practice them while regulated
Coming up with calming strategies together can be useful in empowering a child with the skills to self-regulate. Feeling included in making these strategies can make your child more responsive to them when used in practice. Give strategies, such as deep belly breathing, a go while you and your child are feeling calm and regulated, so that they are familiar by the time you need to use them in practice.
- Be prepared for lots of trial and error
There is an endless number of strategies and there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to emotional regulation. Developing strategies together can take lots of trial and error- what works well for some may exacerbate things for others. While it may feel disheartening when something doesn’t work -don’t give up! It can be useful to give things a go a few times before writing them off, as they may work better at different times.
We hope that these tips will be helpful in supporting your child to develop emotional regulation skills. Before giving them a go, remember the golden rule for supporting someone to regulate themselves:
A dysregulated adult cannot regulate a dysregulated child!
Similarly to putting on your own gasmask before helping others, it is important to practice self-care while supporting your children to regulate themselves.
Developing the skills for emotional regulation can be challenging and may require specialist support using an emotional regulation curriculum. If you feel that your child needs some additional support, get in touch at email@example.com for more information about our remote services. You may also wish to attend our online Webinar – “building your own Zones of regulation toolbox”. Follow us on Facebook by searching ‘Seirrah Therapies’ or email us for more information on this.
About the Author
Paediatric Occupational Therapist
Lilly is an enthusiastic and approachable individual with a passion for supporting children, teenagers and young adults in finding meaning and independence in their lives. Lilly specialises in the area of assessment and intervention for individuals with a range of challenges and diagnoses, including autism, dyspraxia, anxiety and mental health.
In 2019, Lilly completed a Master’s Degree in Language and Communication, in which she researched and advocated for communication rights and the importance of person-centred care. Lilly has a particular interest in supporting children and young people living with mental health difficulties and learning disabilities, often taking creative approaches in this. Lilly is a strong believer that everyone has a right to independence and thrives to support her clients in achieving this.
Lilly currently provides a range of assessments, consultation and therapeutic interventions for children, adolescents and young adults in the Seirrah Therapies clinic, in schools and in homes across the UK. Lilly has experience of conducting assessments and writing reports as part of the Special Educational Needs (SEN) Tribunal process in collaboration with our Highly Specialist Paediatric Occupational Therapist.