Helping Little People Manage BIG Emotions

Some children need more help in managing their emotions than others. Behaviours such as crying, tantrums or complete meltdowns come from emotions and thoughts that have gone too far. Research suggests that there is a direct relationship between our overall quality of life as an adult and our emotional regulation in childhood. This blog will help you get started on addressing the problem sooner rather than later.

So what is emotional regulation?

Emotional regulation is the ability to respond to the ongoing demands of experience with a range of emotions in a manner that is socially tolerable and sufficiently flexible to permit spontaneous reactions as needed.

So what are some signs of difficulties with emotional regulation?

Difficulty in self-regulation may be obvious from a young age and is often related to temperament. In some cases, poor sleep patterns and difficulty with self-soothing during infants are present. Some of the indicators in school aged children are that the child:

  • Has trouble managing anger
  • Has sudden emotional outbursts when things don’t go to plan
  • Becomes overly excited in a group situation
  • Finds it hard to recover from disappointment
  • Resorts to physical ways to resolve conflicts with others

So how does emotional regulation develop?

Self-regulation develops from infancy. A baby relies on an a caregiver to address physiological needs such as hunger and temperature regulation. Self-calming develops through sensory-motor activities such as sucking, social touch, and being held firmly and gently rocked.

By 3-6 mths of age, a baby has more skills and may use looking at the caregiver, or toys to self-regulate. By one year of age, the baby can move around to do things and get to things, or get attention if stressed or fearful. The co-regulation of a trusted caregiver is critical for socio- emotional. This occurs through back and forth communication and interactions that help a child feel safe and secure.

At the end of the second year, most toddlers are starting to regulate themselves more, although tantrums may occur. By preschool years, self-regulation has developed further, but still varies. By school age, the child who regulates their attention, behaviour and emotions will engage more successfully in learning and social interaction with peers. By 7 to 8 years of age, most children are able to control their anger.

It is also important to recognise our own challenges as adults in raising children. Our fast-paced lifestyle, with many choices, activities and increased demands may reduce our family quality time. We may experience stress, some which is good and some which is not so good for us. In some cases, we may struggle to be engaged and spend the time it takes to teach children “in the moment”, whether it be self-help skills or emotional regulation skills.

What can adults do to help develop these skills?

The good news is that emotional regulation skills can be easily taught to children through everyday experiences. For a start, we need to let make sure our children have the opportunity to experience situations that may lead to emotional upsets, rather than shielding them from such situations. Other things we can do include “being present”, staying calm ourselves and spending the time needed to support our children to work through situations.

We want to be sure that our child’s physiological needs are met that set the scene for good emotional regulation.

Some years ago now, OT Anne Buckley Reen developed her SANE approach to Sleep – (Sleep, Activity, Nutrition, and Environment). Her work is still useful nowadays.

Sleep – sleep has a restorative function that is critical for emotional regulation. During deep sleep, REM brain wave patterns help to regulate the amygdala, the emotional control centre of the brain. As well as important electrical activity, calming chemicals such as serotonin are made during sleep.

Activity – incorporating meaningful activities into the daily routine that promote “good” brain chemistry, especially before before times of more stress, help with emotional regulation. Activities that children are motivated to do that give pleasure and feelings of mastery further help to feel happy and calm.

Activities that use our muscles and involve resistance like push/pull, or take our body weight or use traction such as hanging are powerful as they “bring us to the middle” whether we feel sluggish or irritable or agitated. Some examples are animal walks, climbing, modified push ups, or yoga poses.

Activities involving rhythm and repetition, such as jumping, rocking or swinging are also useful. Consider adding activities such as a playground (swinging, rocking) cycling, trampoline, gym or martial arts. However, observe and ask your child how they feel as sensory responses are unique to an individual.

Other useful activities include deep belly breathing (in yoga also) and mindfulness. You may find your child’s teacher using some of these strategies to help students stay calm and focused at school. Research has shown that exercise can reduce emotional distress and improve emotional control in adults and help with depression and anxiety.

Nutrition – the relationship between the gut and the brain is now well established. What your child eats may have a significant effect on behaviour. A good balanced diet can help, especially if your child favours carbohydrates and sugary foods and drinks. In some cases there may be problems with digestion, with irritability and pain, both which can really challenge emotional control. If you think your child may have food sensitivities or allergies, talk to your GP about a referral to a specialist.

Environment – having the right environment is very important especially for children with sensory modulation challenges. For example, for a child who is sensitive to noise, a quiet environment for homework that is away from kitchen noises is one environmental modification that works.

How can OT’s help?

Occupational therapy (OT) addresses participation and independence in activities of daily living (ADL) including sleeping. OT’s have also been at the forefront of sensory processing and self-regulation strategies for children for many years. OT’s help modify routines, environments and tasks and teach emotional regulation skills.

More specifically an OT may:

  1. Assess what factors may be impacting on your child’s ability to self-regulate, including (but not limited to) sensory modulation, cognition, motor skills which impact on how they react to their environment and interactions with others. Understanding and awareness of the problems in itself can help adults make adjustments that support a child’s emotional regulation. Furthermore, the OT will formulate a collaborative intervention plan tailored to your child and family goals.
  2. Teach you and your child strategies using appealing and motivating evidence-based approaches such as the Zones of Regulation by Leah Kuypers, OT. This approach combines sensory strategies with cognitive or thinking strategies. This approach can have the whole family on board with identifying and labelling emotions, current zone/s they are in and learn how to use strategies to enhance being in the right zone or getting back to the zone needed for the situation. Zones of Regulation helps to identify activities that work best for staying calm and engaged and develop appealing colour coded visuals for specific strategies. It teaches awareness of how our thinking can influence our Zones and how to stay flexible in our thinking style.
  3. Help identify the possibility of other factors affecting emotional regulation such as anxiety and support you in referring your child to medical specialists to assist in diagnosis and intervention.

If you would like to refer your child for an assessment, please call AIM Therapy on 08 6150 8339.

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