Emotion Regulation is the ability of children to change or modulate the experience and expression of their emotions. It is a foundational skill that will allow the child to manage his or her thoughts and behaviors even in the presence of intense emotional stimuli. Although children are frequently adapting to the experience of both positive and negative emotions, adults tend to notice difficulties in emotional regulation in situations where the child is experiencing intense negative emotions (anger, frustration, sadness, fear, etc.) Children encounter many situations that require them to regulate their negative emotions at home and in the classroom setting. These may include following directions; sharing; waiting their turn; preserving in tasks that are difficult or boring; problem solving; dealing with interpersonal conflict; and performing tasks they do not want to do.
Children who can appropriately express and modulate intense emotions tend to have higher rates of personal success, academic success, and experience more positive social relationships. These children are able to control the expression of their emotions, which allows them to make friends, to take turns, to listen to others, and to recognize the emotional experiences and perspectives of others. Children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) may have difficulty understanding and regulating their emotions. Additionally, they may experience more intense emotions, especially in response to work that is boring, interpersonal conflict, or to work that is frustrating. These deficits may lead the child to engage in tantrum behavior that negatively impacts the family’s functioning, the child’s school performance, and the child’s social success. In order to help children overcome these deficits, it is essential that the adults in the child’s environment view emotional regulation as a skill set that can be improved. This means approaching difficult emotional situations as an opportunity for growth, and modeling appropriate emotional regulation during these situations.
What can we do to help our children to regulate their emotions?
1. Modeling Emotional Regulation – Children are always watching more than they are listening, and therefore they are likely to copy how they see their adult caregivers responding to emotional stimuli. Caregivers should model the responses that they would like to see when managing difficult situations in their own lives. Additionally, they should talk the child through their own emotional regulation process. An example of this is, “I am feeling really stressed because I need to finish this paper for work tonight. I am managing my stress through creating a quiet work environment, communicating with the members of my family, and taking a walk to calm down before beginning.” Frequently, children only see the end result of adult emotional regulation (i.e., a calm adult), and assume that the adults around them are not actually experiencing intense emotions.
2. Validating the Emotions, not the Behavior –Parents who are warm, responsive and accepting can help children with developing the right emotion regulation strategies. It is important to realize that even if your child’s emotions are too intense for the situation, the child is still experiencing those emotions and has very little control of the intensity of their emotions. Parents who validate, accept, and empathize with children’s negative emotions, allow the child to explore ways to regulate their emotions without feeling guilty or ashamed of the intensity of those emotions. This allows for opportunities for open dialogue with the child. However, parents should be careful not to validate the child’s maladaptive responses to their emotions. An example of this is, “I understand how frustrating it has been for you to work on those math problems for the past hour; however, when you tear up your paper it makes it more difficult for me to help you and more likely that I will become angry. Can we problem solve together about how to help you to calm down so that you can finish your homework and get back to having fun?”
3. Creating a Positive Climate Within the Family – Parents who create nurturing, warm and respectful relationships between family members are also creating an ideal environment for their children to develop positive emotional interactions. Positive climates are created when caregivers use respectful language towards all family members; acknowledge each others’ successes, and display affection towards each other.
4. Focusing on a Healthy Lifestyle – Teaching emotion regulation is hard when a child is hungry, is not eating healthy foods, has not exercised, or has not had an appropriate amount of sleep. Children with ADHD may struggle more than other children to develop and maintain adequate routines that meet their basic needs. It is important for the caregivers to monitor and help the child to regulate their diet, exercise, and sleep.
5, Reading and Listening –When reading with your children, or watching TV shows talk to them about the emotions that the characters are experiencing, and how the characters are handling these emotions. It’s important to note that you don’t need to use “special” TV shows or books to discuss emotions. Children can relate to characters in books and TV shows; and may be more receptive and less defense to understanding emotions based on a character in a book.
6. Focus on Problem Solving- Discuss with your children about how the “emotional mind” is not a good problem solver, and make decisions too quickly that have bad results. Make sure that your children understand that the first step to solving a problem is to calm down so that the “rational mind,” can help them to find the best solution to solve their problem. Help them to frame each tantrum as problem that needs to be solved.
COVID-19 is keeping families at home and disrupting daily routines. The adjustment to a “new normal” is especially difficult for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) who are increasingly isolated from social connections and external structure. Additionally, they may struggle to understand the pandemic and the concepts surrounding social distancing. Caregivers may also have difficulty discussing COVID-19 with their child, leaving children confused about the information. For example, a child with ASD recently asked me why Sesame Street or SpongeBob does not discuss COVID-19 and social distancing. In the absence of information from his caregiver he was looking to popular TV shows to normalize the pandemic and to help him understand how to “survive”. Furthermore, research has shown the importance of consistency in daily routines for children with ASD. Because routines provide feelings of well-being and stability, changes to routines frequently become cause for alarm. This can be especially difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic due to widespread cancellations of activities, and the constantly changing information. Children with ASD can struggle to understand why things are being canceled, and may struggle with the ambiguity of postponements.
What strategies can we use to help a child with ASD during COVID-19?
Story telling– Discussing the change before it happens helps the child to prepare to handle it. Story telling about Coronavirus and how it will affect our every day lives can cut down the surprise of the change. Social stories can help children with ASD to understand what is happening around them, how to behave in unexpected situations, and how to cope with the strong feelings following an unexpected change or cancellation. Social stories can also help children with ASD to normalize social distancing, and to better understand what it means when an event is postponed to an unknown future date.
Using visual aids– Pictures and written reminders can help children with verbal processing deficits understand what is happening. They can also serve as visual cues for how to handle strong emotions, and better understanding postponements. Caregivers can use charts, tables, pictures, schedules and clocks to introduce new changes into their routine.
Small changes and schedules– Start with small changes to the schedule so that children don’t feel overwhelmed. Do not feel pressured to play every minute of an eight hours school day. Frequently children with ASD or other executive functioning deficits were already feeling overwhelmed by the length of the school day. Limit the amount of time spent doing academic work to 1-2 hours per day. Leave a lot of space in the schedule for breaks and unstructured playtime. During unstructured playtime, is important to provide your child with a list of activities to do, as children with ASD frequently have difficulty structuring independent leisure. Make sure to leave space in the schedule for quiet time activities, and to enforce quiet time for both you and your children throughout the day. Assign your child chores around the house to help them gain a sense of responsibility.
Create a special space- Build a safe space or quiet space to process negative emotions. Encourage your child to go to the special space prior to having a meltdown. Do not use the special space as a punishment, but a coping strategy. Make sure to provide your child with a lot of reinforcement if they successfully use the special space.
Physical activity – Gross motor activities promote physical and mental well-being. Try to go outside every day for at least 30 minutes with your child (i.e., walk, bicycle ride or work in the yard). Ask your child to help you with chores around the house, give them some responsibility,
Reward their flexibility and positive behavior- By rewarding your child's positive behavior, you are essentially building skills and encouraging desired behaviors. Pair the reinforcement with a validation of the child’s feelings. For example, “I understand how frustrating it is to not go to the pool right now, I am so proud of you for being flexible and making a new plan. Tonight we can play a video game together.”
Fun Activities- Take advantage of some of the extra time to do fun and free activities with your child. Examples of this might be cooking together, playing video games together, playing board games together or creating a craft together.
Self-care- Make sure schedule something for 30 minutes to 1 hour that recharges you. During this time, have your kids do a quiet time activity or play on electronics, so that they give you space. Try to be realistic and understand that your new routine can’t be perfect, and that you don’t need to use this time to make dramatic self-improvements. For caregivers with children with special needs, the important thing is to be patient and understanding with yourself as you adjust to the new normal.
Pathways Behavioral Health Blog
Dr. Stillerova and Amber Shriver
Dr. Lucia Stillerova joined Pathways Behavioral Health in 2018. She received her PhD in Applied Developmental Psychology from George Mason University and her Master of the Arts in Clinical Psychology from University of St. Cyril and Methodius. She has presented her research at national conferences, and published in international journals. She also serves as a part-time faulty member at George Mason University. Her research focuses on social–emotional teaching and learning in early childhood development.