Emotional Regulation: *Start Here
I’ve always told my daughter that some people have big feelings and some people have small feelings and that hers just tend to be a little larger than most. She likes hearing this because it makes her feel special. I like telling her this because it stops me from losing my mind when she’s throwing herself on the floor howling from the disappointment of a cancelled playdate or when she’s screaming and dancing on the bed from the joy of going to see LEGO 2.
I don’t really think her feelings are any bigger than those of the average kid but I do think that we need to keep working on her emotional regulation skills. Being able to regulate emotions means being able to stop big feelings from causing a complete meltdown. This means different things at different ages, of course, because while it’s okay for a baby to scream and cry when she can’t reach her favorite toy, it’s not okay for a 40-something to have a tantrum in the store that’s run out of his favorite ice cream flavor. While it’s perfectly normal and expected for children to experience strong feelings such as anger, sadness, fear, excitement, disappointment, and joy, developing the skill of emotional regulation helps children feel their feelings, learn from them, and move on.
Emotional regulation is one of many executive functions or complex skills that we develop to achieve our goals and succeed in life. Learning to experience our feelings but prevent them from hijacking our thoughts and our behaviors is an essential skill that we need to succeed in social situations, in school, and later in work. Functioning in these situations is more complicated and difficult when we’re flooded by intense feelings.
Emotional regulation issues often go hand in hand with other EF struggles such as working memory, sustained attention, and problem solving. For some children, emotional regulation is their biggest issue. Their emotions are just too big, and when sadness, anger, fear, or even joy takes over, all of their other EF skills break down. A child who is flooded with emotions can’t keep it together to demonstrate solid attention, working memory, or impulse control. This is not the same as a psychiatric illness such as depression or anxiety. It means that in the very short term, an otherwise emotionally healthy kid isn’t able to recover from disappointment or other big feelings the same way that other kids can. For kids with ADHD or other EF issues focusing, organizing, working memory, and problem-solving are the biggest issues.These things can be very taxing because of the additional load placed on their brains. Their emotional regulation may become challenged and they then become flooded when concentrating gets too intense. In order to help any child who is struggling with executive function issues, we can start by helping them with their emotional regulation. The easiest way to begin regulating emotions is through breathing. Just taking a few slow, focused breaths starts to make kids (and adults) feel tranquil and calm, and helps our emotions become more manageable. Slowing down our breathing doesn’t just make us feel calmer, it clears our mind and sharpens our focus. When we teach kids the simple act of taking some slow, regular breaths to use when they’re emotionally flooded or cognitively stressed, there’s a great chance it will increase their emotional regulation. And an emotionally regulated kid is that much more prepared to tackle other the other executive function challenges that school and life might throw their way. Teaching children these skills is much easier when it’s enjoyable for them, so don’t forget to make it fun!