Many young children seem to go from mild to explosive in seconds. Giving them ways to analyze and understand how their emotions work will go a long way to helping them control their responses. Use your relationship and conversational skills to guide your child towards self-regulation.
- Talk about your own emotions, reactions and stress management toolkit. Kids learn from narratives, especially from the people they love, admire, and trust the most. Keep it simple, truthful and flawed. They need to hear about your struggles, problem-solving, failures and successes. “Oh, boy! I was so upset when the man cut in front of us in line. I had to really take a minute and breath. I wanted to yell at him, but I am glad I didn’t. Maybe he had a good a reason to do it, or maybe he couldn’t help himself. I don’t want things like that to ruin my day! You know what I did instead? I started singing inside my head the I’m Late rabbit song from Alice in Wonderland. I turned it into a game and then it wasn’t so bad!”
- Praise their efforts. Children need to hear when they are on the right path. It takes a lot of energy and will to work through emotions. Give them feedback about their efforts when you see them trying to work through a difficult social or emotional situation, such as sharing a toy, showing empathy, or waiting their turn at the playground. It’s better to praise their efforts rather then the outcome. This gives them the message that the outcome is in their control and dependent on their hard work. “It’s hard to wait your turn when you want something really bad, but I saw how patiently you waited for your turn on the slide today. You were respectful to the other kids and it was really nice to see.”
- Ask questions. Sometimes children don’t understand why they do what they do. Asking them questions teaches them to analyze their behavior and understand the ensuing outcome. Inquire about their reactions and those of others. “Why do you think Mary shared her muffin with you today?” or “You don’t usually like to share your red truck. What made you want to share it with Johnny today?”
Visualizing Emotional Zones
Studies show that language is closely tied to our visual processing system. Expressions such as “the drop that made the glass overflow”, “blowing a gasket” and “steam came out of his ears” all reflect how our brains process language and emotions in a visual way. You can take advantage of this when helping a child work through tumultuous emotions. Start by drawing a picture that will represent different emotional states. It can be a cup, a bucket, an odometer, a traffic light, or even just a circle. Whatever you choose, divide it into five color-coded sections:
- Blue for empty, low energy, sleepy.
- Green for calm, relaxed, focused.
- Yellow for unfocused, restless, annoyed, nervous, anxious, energetic, excited.
- Orange for angry, hurt, impatient, bouncy, disruptive, frustrated.
- Red for explosive, yelling, crying, upset, aggressive, out-of-control.
Speak to your child about how it feels to be in each emotional zone. Ask a lot of questions, but let him draw his own inferences and conclusions. Then you can help him come up with strategies he can use in each zone to cope with each level of emotion.
Calming Strategies for All Emotional Zones
Every child is different so coping strategies should be tailored to your individual child. Here are some starting ideas:
- Concentrating/focusing on breathing.
- Jumping up and down.
- Squeezing a favorite toy.
- Taking a break/removing yourself from the situation.
- Drinking water.
- Eating a crunchy or soft snack.
- Sucking a thick liquid from a straw.
- Blowing soap bubbles.
- Blowing liquid bubbles through a straw.
- Listening to music.
- Playing with water, washing hands or face.
- Going to a safe person for a strong hug. This can be very grounding for kids.
- Tactile comfort. This could mean touching velcro, popping bubble wrap, rubbing soft fabric, or whatever the child finds soothing.
- Creating a sensory bean and rice box. This is really soothing and calming for many children.
- Drawing or writing about feelings.
- Stretching or brain gym exercises.
- Turning a stressful situation into a story. Reframing something that happens into a fictional story can help kids and adults calmly deal with an unpleasant situation.
Many other free and paid resources are available for helping children learn to understand their emotions, reduce their stress, and improve their coping skills. A number of the books on Autism Spectrum or Sensory Processing Disorder offer helpful strategies that can benefit other children as well. Here are some other ideas:
(I don’t represent any of these authors or program, nor am I affiliated with any of them.)
I hope this article has been helpful to you. Self-regulation and sensory strategies are topics that are near and dear to my heart. I have used them in my occupational therapy practice not only with children, but with adults recovering from strokes as well. Understanding how our brain processes work can help inform our parenting, teaching and coaching. With the right strategies, self-regulation can be taught successfully.
How do you teach a child emotional regulation? Children do especially well with approaches that use visualization and storytelling.
Want to foster more self-regulation? Check out my article on Emotional Labeling.
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