Understanding Emotional Regulation
Seeing a toddler throw a tantrum or experience a meltdown is often considered a normal part of development. But, if your school-aged child is throwing a tantrum, they are likely experiencing difficulties regulating their emotions.
Emotion regulation is the ability to appropriately manage and express your emotions so that you can remain calm and adapt to the demands of a given situation. Handling frustrations and maintaining focus helps children succeed at school and in social settings. Emotion regulation also allows them to adjust to changing expectations.
The Brain’s Role in Regulating Emotions
It can be helpful to think of the brain as having two parts: the downstairs brain and the upstairs brain. The downstairs brain consists of the brainstem and the limbic system. Its role is to take in sensory information from the environment and control basic body functions like heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate. These critical functions are involved in our response to realistic or unrealistic stressors in the environment. When we experience a perceived threat, our downstairs brain reacts by causing us to respond without thinking. Hence the reason we experience panic, outbursts, and meltdowns.
The upstairs brain includes the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex controls our executive functioning and is responsible for higher-level skills like planning, reasoning, and decision making. This means that the upstairs brain helps us to think before we react and helps us regulate our emotions. The downstairs brain is fully developed from birth. By contrast, the upstairs brain develops gradually through exposure to new experiences, learning opportunities, supportive environments, and guidance.
It is important to remember that, even under ideal circumstances, a child or adolescent’s upstairs brain is still under construction. When a child is experiencing a meltdown, there is a lack of communication between the upstairs and downstairs brains. The downstairs brain takes over, and the upstairs brain cannot help regulate. It will be ineffective if you try to reason with a child during a meltdown. When their downstairs brain is dysregulated, their upstairs brain is disengaged. For children with disorders like ADHD and Learning Disabilities, the development of the upstairs brain takes longer and is more inconsistent than it is for a typically developing child.
The Relationship Between ADHD/Learning Disabilities and Emotional Regulation
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a disorder of self-regulation. The main area that is impacted is the child’s executive functioning skills. For many, this presents as any or all the following:
- working memory deficits
- processing speed deficits
- cognitive inflexibility
- difficulty transitioning from one task to another
- difficulty planning ahead
Individuals with ADHD are approximately 30% delayed in their executive functioning. They tend to require more structure and support than neurotypical children when regulating their emotions.
Similarly, many children with Learning Disabilities have lower executive functioning skills and are often met with unrealistic external expectations. When they repeatedly try but fail, it can lead to avoidance, resistance to support, oppositional behaviours, and anxiety.
Due to the increased challenges children with ADHD and Learning Disabilities face, they use more mental energy when engaging in everyday tasks. These children tend to spend more mental energy on:
- Tasks that are not intrinsically motivating
- Self-regulating when faced with challenges and failures
- Processing information in their environment
- Managing overwhelming amounts of sensory information
- Sitting still and staying focused
- Controlling impulses
Additionally, children can experience environmental stressors that can impact their ability to regulate. Examples of stressors include a sudden change in routine, poor sleep, poor nutrition, lack of exercise, and unusual or additional demands in their environment. Challenges and stressors deplete these children’s mental energy leaving less energy for regulating emotions.
How to Support Your Child with Regulating their Emotions
The Two Basic Steps to Emotional Regulation
The two basic steps to emotional regulation are self-awareness and strategy use. Self-awareness is the ability to recognize how you are feeling. Strategy use involves the ability to utilize a regulation strategy after identifying how you are feeling. Here are some suggestions on how you can help your child develop and implement these two steps:
- Build a common language - Create a visual chart using different colours to identify different feelings (i.e., blue is sad/tired, green is calm/happy, yellow is frustrated/worried, red is angry/uncontrollably excited). Encourage all family members to share how the feel when they are experiencing big emotions.
- Increase self-awareness - Help children identify what they need. Prompt them to describe their feelings on a scale of 1 (can manage on their own with strategies) to 5 (need help regulating).
- Fill their toolbox - It is helpful to fill the toolbox with strategies that will be effective in the long term. Remember, strategies are not one size fits all. You may need to go through several to find ones that work. Most strategies don’t work the first time you use them. Keep practicing to get your body to learn to use the strategy as a calming tool.
- Teach calming self-talk - Examples of calming self-talk include: “this is a temporary feeling, and it will go away”. Or, “my brain thinks there is a threat, but I’m not in danger.”
- Be curious - Observe and notice by connecting your child’s thoughts, feelings, and sensations. Identify faulty thinking and work together to do a reality check.
- Increase positive noticing - point out the positive achievements, no matter how big or small.
Picture the gas tank on your car. The tank starts as full, and the more you drive it, the more fuel you have burned. Once the tank is empty, the car can no longer function. Similarly, children have a cognitive fuel tank. They begin their day with a full tank of energy. Their tanks slowly become depleted as they expend their energy on the demands of a typical day. Having a depleted cognitive fuel tank helps explain why children are more dysregulated at home after a long day at school. To help children maintain energy for emotion regulation, we need to provide them with ways to refuel their tank before it runs out. Examples of ways to refuel their tank throughout the day include:
- taking regular brain breaks, and
- engaging in positive self-talk.
When we permit ourselves to feel emotions, we become less overwhelmed by them and less reactive over time. Being able to manage perceived or actual emotional distress is called distress tolerance. Children with low distress tolerance are easily overwhelmed in the face of stressful situations.
There is a biological component to the development of distress tolerance which indicates that some individuals tend to struggle more to develop these skills. They can develop them - it just takes more practice! It is essential to help children build their capacity for tolerating stress by allowing them to feel their emotions and work through stressful situations. The more exposure they have to minimally stressful situations, the greater their capacity to manage their emotions in more stressful situations. By remaining calm during meltdowns or tantrums, your child is more likely to bring themselves to a calmer state faster.
Modelling is another essential part of teaching your children how to manage their emotions. One of the best ways to help integrate your child’s brain is to integrate your own. One important aspect of this is demonstrating your level of distress tolerance. When you experience a big emotion, tell your children how you feel and what you will do to regulate your feelings. Doing so helps children understand that it is okay to experience these emotions. It also teaches them to recognize, verbalize, and regulate their big emotions. Finally, modelling self-care and self-compassion when making a mistake shows children the importance of being patient with themselves and normalizes making mistakes.
Learning how to regulate emotions can help children interact with their environment in a more adaptive way. Children are better able to cope with stressful situations when they have the skills to help bring themselves to a calm state. Parents can support their children in developing and practicing positive regulating skills by assisting them to increase their level of self-awareness and strategy use. Parents can help their children understand, recognize, verbalize, and regulate their emotions by providing guidance and modelling emotional regulation.
- The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind by Daniel Siegal and Tina Payne Bryson
- No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brian Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind by Daniel Siegal and Tina Payne Bryson
- Self-Reg: How to Help Your Child (And You) Break the Stress Cycle and Successfully Engage with Life by Stuart Shanker