Regulating the rollercoaster: How to improve your child’s emotional self-regulation

10 May 2023
A male teacher in a blue shirt is looking compassionately at a student. The student is a boy wearing a yellow polo shirt. He has his face in his hands.

We all want our children to leave home with some fundamental life skills.

Cooking. Cleaning. Doing their taxes. These will undoubtedly help them navigate the world.

But what if their inner world is in turmoil?

When we’re in the grips of overwhelming emotions, even boiling an egg is a daunting task. And emotional self-regulation is a life skill too often forgotten – as our own Ashlee Mitchell (MCP) attests.

Here, drawing on her professional and parental expertise, Ashlee explains the ins and outs of kids’ emotions.

And she shares the proven strategies she uses to help kids understand their feelings – and help parents find a little more peace.

By Ashlee Mitchell, Clinical Psychologist Registrar

Defining emotional self-regulation

Our emotions offer us important feedback on ourselves and the world around us. But if we don’t understand how to respond to them, they can become unruly and overwhelming – especially for children.

Emotional self-regulation refers to a child’s (and anyone’s) ability to manage their emotions. Done properly, it can help them get back to a calmer state of mind in the face of stressful stimuli.

It can also help children adjust their behaviour according to the situation.

If a child tends to struggle with emotional outbursts – like hitting their friend during a play date if their friend tries to take their toy – improved self-regulation skills could help them respond more proportionately.

Research has demonstrated, time and again, that emotional aptitude is essential both for social–emotional flourishing and academic success.

Emotions are confusing – especially for kids

Of course, improved emotional self-regulation won’t fundamentally change a child’s emotional capacity.

The part of the brain responsible for emotional regulation and impulse control, the pre-frontal cortex, is not fully developed until the mid-to-late twenties. From childhood through adolescence, everyone is a bit impulsive – and a bit sensitive.

Still, it’s never too early to impart productive coping strategies to our kids. As they develop, they can build on a stable foundation of healthy skills more easily than on shaky emotional terrain.

This is the case for all children – even those who are predisposed to struggle with their feelings. Unique temperaments, developmental delays and trauma can all heavily impact a child’s emotional capacity. And the same can be said for neurodivergence.

Emotional children and neurodivergence: Don’t leap to conclusions

As parents, we see our kids’ emotions in constant flux. They can go from loving and cheerful to angry and frustrated in seconds.

So how can we identify a child who is struggling to regulate their emotions? One tip-off is whether tantrums and outbursts are still happening well after the ‘terrible twos’ have passed.

Astute parents may wonder if their school-aged child’s sensitivity is due to an underlying condition. However, emotional dysregulation alone is never enough to constitute a diagnosis.

Some conditions parents (and even medical professionals) may leap to include:

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
  • Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD)
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

It’s important to consider the possibility of a developmental disability. But what’s more important is to help our children with their emotional challenges first.

If our children are showing multiple signs of neurodiversity – difficulty focusing, heightened impulsivity or strong and specific interests, for instance – an allied health professional can help ensure our kids get the support they need.

Three emotional self-regulation tools for children

The causes of children’s emotional volatility are, as we’ve seen, nuanced and complex. Still, most children can benefit from improved self-regulation irrespective of their circumstances.

So what does emotional self-regulation look like in practice?

Here are three tools I favour in my day-to-day work – designed to support parents and children in equal measure.

  1. Emotion coaching

I always encourage parents to view emotional regulation as an active partnership between them and their child. This is called ‘co-regulation’ or ‘emotion coaching’.

For parents, the fundamental steps of this process are:

  1. Adopt an open, compassionate mindset.
  2. Identify the emotion (before we identify it for our child).
  3. Acknowledge the struggle and empathise with sincerity.
  4. Normalise the emotion by explaining why it makes sense.
  5. Name the emotion – helping our child to put words to their experience.
  6. Set limits around the expression of the emotion, and then begin to problem solve.

This strategy teaches children to identify their emotions when they arise – and recognise those same emotions when they come up again. Indirectly, it also teaches parents to be more aware of their own emotions.

As Dan Siegel writes in his book, The Whole-Brain Child: ‘As parents become more aware and emotionally healthy, their children reap the rewards and move toward health as well.’

  1. Coping skills

Children need a toolbox of healthy coping strategies: a reliable collection they can reach for when they’re dysregulated. Just knowing that their toolbox is there can help them feel more secure – giving them room to stop, stay calm and think before they act on powerful emotions.

Their toolbox doesn’t need to contain complex therapeutic concepts. One toolbox, for example, might include:

  • Physical aids – like jumping jacks, dancing or gentle stretching
  • Grounding aids – like deep breathing, slow counting or visualising a peaceful scene
  • Social support aids – like asking for help from a parent, friend or trusted adult

Working with our children to identify which coping skills are most applicable to them can help them expand their toolbox. Something as simple as a video game or – if our child is artistically inclined – a crayon and paper can be invaluable when they’re overwhelmed.

  1. Zones of Regulation

Zones of Regulation is a framework and curriculum developed by Occupational Therapist Leah Kuypers (M.A. ED). It develops awareness of feelings, energy and alertness as children explore self-regulation tools and strategies.

The framework helps them to think about, talk about and organise their feelings – letting them sort their emotions into four coloured ‘zones’:

  • Blue – sad, bored, sick, tired
  • Green – happy, focused, calm, proud
  • Yellow – worried, frustrated, silly, excited
  • Red – overjoyed, panicked, angry, terrified

With time, this can help children see where emotions overlap and diverge. And it can help them learn to manage the different zones to meet their goals – or generally feel more in control.

The Zones of Regulation website has in-depth information for parents who want to learn more.

Treat emotional self-regulation as a key life skill – because it is

Our children’s emotional health is as important as their physical health. How can we expect them to function optimally on their own if they never become aware of and attuned to their emotions and those of others?

A supervisor of mine once compared this to giving them a LEGO set with no instructions – and expecting them to put it together flawlessly. We can’t be frustrated when they can’t do it.

Emotional self-regulation is the foundation on which other key skills – like paying attention, taking turns and controlling impulses – rest. So let’s invest in our children’s emotional education now.

It will pay off dividends – for them and for us.

Need some emotional education for your child or yourself? Ashlee – and the rest of our team of qualified practitioners – are happy to help.

Enquire today about counselling, telehealth or assessments for children of all ages.