Some children appear to not be able to handle everyday life like other kids can. It seems like everything that happens impacts them much more than would be expected.
A simple splinter might lead to a day of screaming, crying, or even a trip to the doctor. Your child may see a dead animal on the side of the road and react with hysterics, being impossible to console.
It may seem like nothing you do makes your child happy. You may feel like you are riding a roller coaster as your child becomes frustrated and then quickly drops into a sense of despair and hopelessness or an angry tantrum.
The child may become easily annoyed and may seem to be overly reactive. It may be hard to get your child interested in activities or interests.
Alternately, your child may be so intensely interested that he is unable to ‘let it go’ when a special activity doesn’t go his way. If your child seems highly sensitive to events and other stimuli in the environment, it may be that emotional regulation is a problem for him or her.
What do challenges with Emotional Regulation look like?
- Shutting down?
- Being dramatic?
- Acting like an emotional roller coaster?
- Having meltdowns or sudden tantrums?
- Displaying reactions that are way out of proportion to the situation?
- Grumbling when asked to do something?
- Being in time-out often?
- Getting out of time-out and engaging in the same behavior as before?
- Seeming to always be on the edge of tears?
- Escalating quickly; going from 0-60 in ten seconds flat?
Why is Emotional Regulation happening?
If your child’s mood is constantly shifting, there can be cause for concern. Kids who ‘go from 0-60 in 10 seconds flat’ are displaying emotional regulation problems. Many kids with and without disorders have emotional regulation issues at certain times in life. Very young children may throw tantrums and seem to get overly upset often. That may be developmentally normal so long as the meltdowns aren’t more than a couple times per week and do not last for more than 10-15 minutes. If your child isn’t having meltdowns often and can be calmed down, this pattern could be normal. Teenagers sometimes go through a period where they are very dysregulated and again this is okay so long as they are not melting down more than a few times a week or more than 30-45 minutes at a time.
Recognized experts consider emotional regulation to be like ‘air traffic control’ because your child has to monitor and direct all the ‘thought traffic’ in his or her mind. He has to think about hurt feelings, appropriate behavior, a noisy fan in the background, and an annoyingly itchy sweater; all whilst he is deciding whether or not to punch that kid on the playground who would not let him join the game. For some children, these skills come more naturally. For others, extreme emotions take over, and it is very difficult for them to gain their composure and to return to functioning appropriately. Expert in child development, Toni Linder, Ph.D., describes the following developmentally typical trajectory for the ‘Regulation of Emotional States’:
- 30 months: “May become aggressive in disputes with other children around possessions or interference with activities.”, p.183.
We do not expect toddlers to regulate emotions on their own. They typically hit or bite each other when upset and cannot really understand a discussion about feeling states.
- 36 months (3 years): “Is able to talk about emotions and what elicits them. Is able to request adult’s help to handle emotions. May begin to recover from tantrums by him/herself.” p.184.
Once the child reaches preschool, we would want to see them starting to talk to adults about their feelings and being able to recover from some tantrums on their own. If your child is not doing so, the teacher may say something like, ‘he’s a melter’ or ‘he is having lots of tantrums.’
- 48 months (4 years): “Occasional aggression with peers. May demonstrate extremes of emotions. Wants to feel in control, talks to self and others about feelings and how to feel better.”, p.184.
Once the child is about done with preschool, a child should be able to identify strong emotions and will begin to learn how to calm down when upset.
- 60 months (5 years): “Able to think about emotions and use discussion to help calm. Self-talk helps child control emotions”, p.185.
When the child approaches Kindergarten, or primary school at the age of 5, the child should be able to calm down successfully much of the time and can talk about feelings and coping skills.
- 72 months (6 years): “Can moderate emotions in different situations as appropriate (e.g., church, playground). Can think about emotions and make conscious changes to responses.”, p.185.
The guide above helps clinicians and parents to think about whether or not there is a delay in emotional regulation and associated development.
Challenges here could also be related to temperament. Temperament refers to our predisposition to personality characteristics. Temperament is present from birth, and every person will have a different style of temperament. Most people have heard of introversion and extroversion referring to an individual’s social engagement style and comfort with large social gatherings, seeing these as energizing or exhausting. Other aspects of temperament may also impact mood. If your child just generally has a higher level of negative emotionality, it is not necessarily indicative of a disability. It could be that parenting with a focus on behavior management and instituting positive reinforcement and reward will work. This process may need to be approached more carefully than your friends approach their own children. Some children are much harder to parent than others.
How can I manage Emotional Regulation at home?
Consider how much these symptoms are getting in the way of your child’s happiness. If a delay as described above is present, think about why. For a Gifted child, a delay in emotional regulation often occurs because of the inherent intensity and sensitivity of the gifted mind.
If you think your child may be gifted, it might be worthwhile to consider an IQ test by a School Psychologist or Licensed Psychologist. Your community may have gifted programs or associations that can help you manage his or her gifted needs.
If the symptoms are milder, start with some parenting approaches meant to help support the development of self-regulation strategies. Dr. Siegel offers a myriad of brilliant strategies to help your child learn to self-regulate .
Dr. Siegel teaches that your child’s emotions are regulated in the ‘downstairs brain,’ which is the part of the brain that is built for survival and engages in the ‘fight, flight, freeze’ responses. When your child is in the downstairs brain, no amount of talking, negotiating, or heaping on of punishments will alter his or her behavior.
It is time to model calm behavior and nurture your child’s calming strategies. Then, and only then, you can begin to process what has happened with your child, and this processing will begin to grow the upstairs brain, where executive functions such as planning and problem solving reside.
At home, keep in mind these ‘do’s and don’ts.’ Don’t allow your child to engage you in a power struggle. Do let her know calmly that you’re happy to talk if she asks in a neutral or positive tone; don’t respond to rude language.
Don’t tell your child how to feel or discredit or deny any emotions. Do validate and reframe. If your child says “I hate my life.” Don’t say “Your life is wonderful. Do you know how lucky you are? Children are starving in the world.”
Do say, “It sounds like you had a terrible day. I’m here if you want to talk.” Encourage your child to find and to engage in coping strategies, which are activities that he or she finds relaxing or enjoyable.
These strategies could be exercise, listening to music, reading a good book, drawing or writing, having a mug of tea or cuddling with the cat.
Do help your child identify mood states and notice when it is a good time to take a break and to do something to help him or her feel better. Apps for our phones that provide guided meditation and mindfulness practice can help children manage mood symptoms with breathing, progressive muscle relaxation and meditation.
Consider yoga if your child enjoys relaxation and wants to learn more ways to relax their muscles and to use breathing to remain calm.
Do read about feelings. A good book for a child having temper tantrums is “Soda Pop Head.” The book describes a child who is always about to ‘blow his lid’ over incidents with peers and siblings. He learns to use strategies like deep breathing and the ‘push, pull, dangle’ muscle relaxation strategy to calm down.
As he calms himself, he lets a little pressure out of the ‘bottle’ so he does not blow his lid. Reading this book can be a good way to ‘externalize’ the blame and treat this problem as something that many people struggle with and can work to improve .
If, however, your child’s rapidly shifting emotional state is getting in the way of school performance, friendships, and overall happiness, it may be necessary to consider an evaluation.
It may be that your child has a disability, such as autism, depression, or anxiety that are essentially ‘disabling’ their self-regulation functions. Resources are provided below in the ‘Where to go for help’ section.
How can Clear Child Psychology help with Emotional Regulation?
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Our Initial Consultation allows us to get a deeper understanding of your child’s needs and determine if an assessment is appropriate.
We Build a Customized Plan
Our Assessments allow us to determine your child’s specific strengths and challenges. We can use this information to develop a customized support plan which includes: referrals
We Connect you with the Right Professionals
Once we understand your child’s needs, we will help families get connected to the right specialists. No more guesswork, no more wasted time and resources.
We Provide Ongoing Coaching and Support
Our Coaching Packages allow us to continually support families as they continue their journeys. Parental coaching, life-skills practice, and school advocacy are just a few examples of ways we help.