You’ve seen the tantrums and emotional dysregulation in your child. Find out how to support emotional regulation in children starting today.
We’ve all been there. Carrying out the child from the grocery store or birthday party mid-tantrum. So if you’ve found yourself here at this blog post, please know you are not alone.
It’s the goal we all want – a child who can handle when the store runs out of his favorite cereal. Or a child who can manage the disappointment of not being the birthday girl.
We want children who can manage their own strong feelings in healthy ways. This is emotional regulation.
Emotional regulation in children develops as a child learns to understand their emotions and develops the capacity to think adaptively about situations.
But how exactly can you support your child to learn emotional regulation skills? This comprehensive guide breaks down everything you to know about emotional dysregulation and how to help your child regulate their emotions.
What is emotional regulation?
Emotional regulation is a person’s ability to manage their emotions, reactions, and behavior in a socially-acceptable and productive manner.
When your child can say to you “I am sad that I lost that game. I need a break,” you’ll know they are developing their emotional regulation skills.
What is emotional dysregulation in children?
Conversely, emotional dysregulation in children is when a youth experiences strong emotions and is not able to manage them in a healthy way.
It often looks like a meltdown or a temper tantrum. Sometimes emotional dysregulation can also include withdrawal and refusal.
Emotional dysregulation in children includes maladaptive behaviors like:
- other property destruction,
- verbal attacks, or
While all children and adults experience emotional dysregulation from time to time, some experience it more frequently.
If you are still dealing with five-year-old tantrums, that’s a good indication your child struggles with emotional dysregulation.
What causes poor emotional regulation in children?
The first reason children deal with poor emotional regulation is that they are children! Their brains are immature and still developing.
The prefrontal cortex and amygdala are responsible for emotional regulation. Those parts of the brain don’t finish developing until adulthood.
Neurodivergent children are more prone to emotional regulation issues than neurotypical children. Children with ADHD, dyslexia, autism, and anxiety all have a harder time managing their own emotions.
For example, in ADHD the connection between the amygdala and the cerebral cortex is weak. So their emotional dysregulation seems out of proportion with the upsetting incident.
Some neurodivergent children like those with autism have a harder time thinking of flexible choices for situations. Neurologically, most children aren’t ready to do this but it’s even harder for an autistic child.
This means neurodivergent children are going to need more systematic and explicit support from parents and teachers to manage those big feelings.
Why is emotional regulation for children so important?
As adults, we understand that emotional regulation is necessary for day-to-day life. It’s the same for children.
Emotional regulation skills are necessary for:
- Positive peer relations
- Ability to learn
- Positive self-concept
- Personal safety
Positive peer relationships
Developing social skills for kids is one of the most important childhood milestones. Children need to be regulated to learn social norms and develop empathy.
In order to have friendships, children need to be calm. It’s next to impossible to develop friendships, explore common interests, and establish trust when a child is experiencing emotional dysregulation.
Ability to learn
Children need to learn both academic skills and about the world around them. Learning requires focusing and making connections to existing knowledge. A dysregulated child can’t learn in a classroom setting or any other environment.
Emotional regulation in children supports their learning. With a calm body and mind, a child is best equipped to absorb all sorts of information.
Children who experience a lot of emotional dysregulation are more prone to making poor behavioral choices. Engaging in aggression or property damage makes most children feel guilt and shame. That negatively impacts self-concept and can lead to more emotional dysregulation in children.
On the other hand, emotional regulation in children allows them to experience more success in their environment. Whether that be building a Lego creation or having a play date with friends, those positive experiences can foster self-worth.
Emotional dysregulation in children can negatively impact personal safety. An extremely upset child can make more impulsive decisions like darting into traffic or running away from home. Children with emotional dysregulation also are more prone to self-harm.
Children with good emotional regulation skills are better able to make adaptive decisions to get their needs met. While they might still need to be taught collaboration and communication skills, their brain is more ready to access the necessary language and impulse control.
How do you prevent emotional dysregulation?
A lot of parents try to prevent their child’s emotional dysregulation by controlling their environment so their child never gets upset.
Maybe the parent never takes the child into grocery stores so the child doesn’t get practice managing waiting. Maybe the parent doesn’t take the child to birthday parties because their child has trouble managing disappointment.
There is definitely a time and place for changing the environment. If your child gets extremely upset from watching Disney movies, you can just not watch them. But avoiding all challenging opportunities hinders your child’s social and emotional growth.
So your child also needs plenty of low-risk opportunities to learn to prevent emotional dysregulation with your support. So the best way to prevent emotional dysregulation is to teach good emotional regulation through:
- strong emotional knowledge.
- understanding how emotions feel in their body.
- identifying triggers or upsetting events
- mindfulness strategies to stay aware of how they feel.
- a variety of good coping strategies for when they are upset.
Develop an Awareness of Emotions
Learning about emotions and developing emotional fluency is the first step to emotional regulation. You will need to teach your child to name feelings
This can be as easy as printing a kids’ emotion chart and posting it in a high-traffic area in your home. Then you routinely check in about emotions.
Use the nightly bedtime story as a way to build emotional regulation skills with your child. There are loads of children’s books that build emotional intelligence and make developing an awareness of emotions concrete for children.
Identifying Triggers for Dysregulation
Triggers for dysregulation can be upsetting events. But there can also be lagging skills cause some children to deal with emotional dysregulation more than others.
Lagging skills can include difficulty with:
- tolerating waiting
- managing disappointment
- managing frustration
- being flexible
- handling transitions
- understanding social cues
- managing time
- following a logical order
Just like children who struggle to read, parents need to work on children with the underlying skills that cause them difficulty with emotional regulation.
So you can start keeping track of when your child experiences emotional dysregulation and find those triggers. Then be explicit with your child:
“I’ve noticed you have a hard time when you have to wait your turn. Guess what? This is a skill we can learn!”
Mindfulness Skills for Children’s Emotional Regulation
Once your child is aware of their own triggers, they need a way to remain regulated long enough to use calming strategies.
Mindfulness skills can really support children’s emotional regulation.
You can teach your child to:
- Look at 5 things in their environment
- Listen for 4 sounds around them
- Feel 3 parts of their body
- Notice 2 smells
- Take 1 deep inhale
Breathing Exercises for Kids
Deep breaths can be such a valuable mindfulness tool because our breath is always kid with. You can make taking deep breaths more tangible for your child with the Deep Breathing Task Cards.
Mindfulness strategies give children that 10-second pause they need to use their coping tools.
Coping Strategies for Emotional Regulation
Once a child has used mindfulness to take them from the brink of emotional dysregulation, they can use coping strategies.
Calming strategies for children look different for different kids. That is because some tools work better for some children than others.
When you teach your child to stay calm give them options. Grab the free printable above and allow your child the opportunity to practice those calming techniques when they are calm.
One of my children loves to draw and the other one likes Legos. Your child could like to emotionally regulate by listening to music or getting a drink of water. So explore those options.
Dealing with Challenging Emotions
Some challenging emotions can lead to more emotional dysregulation. Both anger and sadness can trigger some big feelings in children. So your child might need extra support to learn emotional regulation skills for those times.
When dealing with anger, it can really help to use a visual with your child. Make it outside their own body makes it both more concrete and less personal.
You can grab a free anger chart for children called the Anger Volcano. It helps your child see how it’s best to get anger under control when they are at the annoyed or frustrated phase.
Managing disappointment can be a tricky trigger for a lot of children. Sometimes a variety of strategies needs to be tested to see what works for your disappointed child. Some children need validation while other children need their parents to give them quiet and space to work through the feeling.
What is an example of emotional regulation?
Let’s think of a common childhood scenario to give you an example of emotional regulation.
You take your child to get an ice cream cone one summer afternoon. Your child drops the ice cream off the cone.
Emotional regulation in this situation would look like a child feeling sad and maybe even crying a little. When you suggest an alternative – like let’s go buy another or you can have mine – your child can calmly choose one option.
As you walk back to the ice cream shop, your child is able to take some breaths and the movement also helps regulate them. By the time you’re inside, your child can tell the employee what they need clearly.
These are all signs your child has strong emotional regulation.
What are ways to build emotional regulation?
Your child can name emotions and takes deep breaths, but they are still having meltdowns? Of course, they are!
They need a lot of experience in order to build emotional regulation skills. After your child has some of those steps, they need time put them into action. You can help them build emotional regulation by:
- Rehearse situations
- Practice in low-risk ways
- Create a behavior chain
Think of scenarios that are triggering for your child. Discuss them without any shaming but with curiosity when your child is calm.
It could sound like this:
- Parent: “I’ve noticed it’s hard for you when your brother gets to choose the TV show.”
- Child: “Yeah I don’t like it.”
- Parent: “It can be tough.”
- Child: “Yeah.”
- Parent: “But I know you don’t enjoy having meltdowns either so let’s rehearse it.”
Then your child and you can rehearse when it’s time to let the sibling choose a show. You talk through what it would feel like and how your child wants to use strategies to maintain their emotional regulation.
Practice in a low-risk way
Different than rehearsing, practice is exposing your child to the triggering event and coaching them through it. It’s best to let them know you are going to practice in a low-risk way.
Practice playing board games and letting your child experience losing. Practice knocking down a block tower so your child can use their coping strategies.
If you can trigger some challenging situations in the privacy of your home and work through them, you will build emotional regulation skills.
Prepare your child that today their brother is good to choose the TV show, and your child will practice using their strategies.
If your child demonstrates strong emotional regulation, praise them. There is a lot of information on social media that praise or rewards are manipulative and inhibit internal motivation.
The opposite is true. Using praise and rewards strategically as your child builds emotional regulation skills gives them a greater sense of control, makes it clear that the situations are within their control, and builds intrinsic motivation.
I recommend finding something good in the situation that you can praise your child for. Then take note of what was still hard and commit to practicing again the next day.
Create a behavior chain
For some children, practicing the actual triggering event might be too much. So you can try a behavior chain.
Let’s say your child hits other children and then has an epic tantrum when other children want a turn with a toy. For a lot of children, just practicing that event is going to be too much.
A behavior chain or task analysis looks like breaking apart the triggering event and exposing them to small amounts of those stressors to build emotional regulation skills. It prevents your child from becoming emotionally flooded and gives them a chance to use some strategies.
For a child that has an incredibly hard time with the anxiety of sharing toys, a behavior chain could look like this:
- Play with their toys on a tray in sight line of other children.
- Play with their toys on a tray closer to other children.
- Play with their toys on a tray next to other children.
- Practicing saying, “I’m playing with this still” before another child asks.
- Says, “I’m playing with this still” with adult prompting.
- Says, “I’m playing with this still” independently.
- Plays with toys off of their own tray and can advocate for themselves “I’m playing with this still.”
An adult would need to coach a child through each step to use calming strategies as they get started to experience emotional dysregulation.
You can try this today. Think about a stressful trigger for your own child. Then sit down with a piece of paper and see how you can break up the skill into a behavior chain.
Recapping Emotional Regulation in Children
Here’s the summary for busy parents:
- Emotional regulation in children is the ability to handle powerful feelings in an adaptive way
- Emotional dysregulation is becoming overwhelmed by emotions or reacting in a way that is out of proportion to the upsetting event.
- Neurodivergent children tend to struggle with emotional regulation more than neurotypical children.
- Emotional regulation is important because it allows children to develop friends, learn academic and other skills, improve self-worth, and increases personal safety.
- Parents can identify triggers and underlying lagging skills that contribute to emotional dysregulation.
- Children learn emotional regulation as they develop emotional fluency, mindfulness, and calming strategies.
- They need opportunities to develop emotional regulation through rehearsing, practicing triggering situations, and exposure methods.
Teaching emotional regulation can be the most challenging skill for parents to help children learn. But good emotional skills are the foundation for a successful and happy life.