Emotional regulation is a very large part of our role as Occupational Therapists, and it is often raised as an area of concern by parents and teachers/educators alike. Emotional regulation is essentially the ability to manage our stress and identify how we are feeling. This is not a skill we are born with, and therefore develops through childhood and, for some, continues to develop into adolescence and adulthood. Poor or delayed emotional regulation can lead to social issues, meltdowns, behavioural difficulties at home, school and in the community, anxiety and, later in life, even difficulty with relationships and addictions.
It is important to acknowledge that emotional regulation and executive functioning skills are connected; development of social emotional skills includes an awareness of self and self-monitoring skills, which are a major area of executive functioning. Moreover, the regulation of emotions is critical for executive functioning cognitive tasks: when we are regulated (and behaviour is regulated), the frontal lobe of the brain is at work with initiation, impulse control, self-monitoring and other cognitive skills.
You may have heard the term self-regulation also, and if you thought it was related to emotional regulation you are correct! Self-regulation is the ability to understand and manage your behaviour, and particularly your reactions to feelings and things happening around you (which may influence your emotions/feelings). This includes being able to regulate reactions to emotions like frustration or excitement; clam down after something exciting or upsetting happens; focus on a task and refocus attention on a new ask; control impulses and learn behaviour that helps you get along with other people.
Self-regulation is important because, as a child grows, it will help them:
- Learn at school: self-regulation gives children the ability to sit and listen in the classroom.
- Behave in socially acceptable ways: self-regulation gives children to ability to control impulses.
- Make friends: self-regulation allows children to have the ability to take turns in games, share toys and express themselves in appropriate ways.
- Become more independent: self-regulation allows children to have the ability to make good decisions about their behaviour and learn how to behave in new situations with less guidance from parents.
- Manage stress: self-regulation allows children to learn that they can cope with strong feelings and gives them ability to calm/arouse themselves at appropriate times (when angry/shy or sad).
Developmentally, children establish social emotional skills that lead to their emotional regulation developing. Below is a brief summary of developmental milestones of social emotional skills for children.
Babies: demonstrate some comfort strategies, such as suck fingers or look away, to articulate that they need a break from attention or are getting tired.
Toddlers: beginning to demonstrate an ability to wait short times for food and toys. However, toddlers often still snatch toys from other children if it is something they really want (impulse control not yet developed). Tantrums frequently happen when toddlers struggle with regulating strong emotions, for example not understand the reasoning behind being told no and therefore not understanding why they have such large feelings and how to self-regulate.
Pre-schoolers: they are beginning to know how to play with other children and understand what is expected from them in different environments and situations.
School-age children: control their own wants and needs, imagine other peoples perspectives and considering both sides of a situation. This might mean, for instance, that they might be able to disagree with other children without having an argument.
A great resource that many of our therapists are trained in and implement with clients is The Zones of Regulation. This program is a self-regulation tool developed to help children identify, address and use strategies to achieve emotional regulation and self-control. All of us, even adults, can benefit from using the zones of regulation activities to monitor, maintain and change our level of regulation.
If you feel your child has difficulty managing or identifying their emotions, get in touch today and we can arrange for one of our experienced therapists to discuss this further with you and identify if occupational therapy intervention could benefit.