Emotional Regulation

What is Emotional Regulation?

Emotional regulation, sometimes called self-regulation, refers to the way we deal with big feelings like anger, excitement, frustration, anxiety, or low mood. Regulation skills can be taught at home and at school. Some people need extra help from a professional like a counsellor.

Big feelings like anger can be helpful because they prepare our bodies to fight when we feel threatened. They can also help us get things done or speak up for our own needs. The way we feel and show feelings are affected by many things including our gender, culture, and religion. For children and youth, anger can be a way to show strong feelings. Anger or avoidance may be the only way they know to show they are frustrated or unhappy. 

How do I know if a child or youth has a problem with emotion regulation?

At different stages of development children and youth have different ways of showing or acting on their feelings. It's important to remember that feelings of excitement, anger, or frustration, are all normal feelings; we all feel these emotions at times.

Meltdowns

Young children may have meltdowns when they are upset. They may cry, yell, and swing their arms and legs when they're asked to do something they don't want to do. Children may also have meltdowns when they are having a hard time learning something new or when they are tired, overstimulated or under stress.

Most young children have meltdowns but usually "grow out" of them by about the age of four. As they get older, they learn how to deal with big feelings and find better ways to show their feelings.

Meltdowns are a problem if they:

  • continue past age four
  • are violent (child hurts themself, other people or other things)
  • happen often and last for a long time (longer than 15 minutes, more than 3 times a day)

Problem meltdowns can show that a child needs help learning to manage and express big feelings. They may also be a sign of physical or mental health problems like seizures, learning problems, autism spectrum disorder, or a mental health disorder like ADHD (attention-deficit / hyperactivity disorder) or anxiety.

When are big feelings a problem?

Big feelings are a problem when a child or youth:

  • often holds in their emotions
  • often gets into arguments with others, like parents, teachers, friends or classmates
  • threatens to hurt others or damage other people’s things
  • starts fights or hurts others
  • seems “out of control” when angry (for example, breaking things or acting wildly)
  • has problems with the law

The child or youth may just need extra help dealing with their emotions. Anger or overexcitement can be part of a mental health disorder like:

If a child or youth seems very angry or their anger is causing a lot of problems, it's best to talk to a doctor.

What can be done?

Children and youth can learn how to manage their feelings. Here are some things to try:

Tips for dealing with big feelings at home

Preventing a meltdown

  • if a child seems close to having a meltdown, try to distract them. Remove them from the situation or guide them to a less frustrating activity
  • know your child and prepare for their reaction. What situations or events might trigger a meltdown or make them lose control? Can the situation be avoided? If not, how can you prepare your child?
  • is there an unmet need you can meet?
  • give simple choices. This gives the child confidence and may help lower frustration
  • make sure your expectations and requests are realistic. A child may feel very frustrated if they can’t actually do what you ask them to
  • listen to the child’s concerns and opinions
  • validate the feelings they may be having even if you do not agree with their behaviour
  • teach the child other ways to deal with their big feelings. For example, teach them words to describe how they feel and teach them methods for calming down such as counting and deep breathing.
  • show them a safe space they can go to calm down
  • set clear, reasonable expectations using simple language
  • have predictable routines and rituals
  • use a timer for transitions
  • using visuals such as a schedule

During a meltdown

  • stay calm and don’t take the behaviour personally
  • be present, if needed it is okay to take a break from the situation (if it is safe to do so)
  • assess why the child is upset
  • speak calmly, have a clear message using simple language (such as “when you are sitting on your bed we can talk”)
  • ensure the environment is safe
  • being calm and working through an upsetting situation can help you teach your child strategies to handle frustration

After a meltdown

  • praise the child when they calm down
  • talk to the child about the situation and their experience
  • ask your child about the feelings they experienced (you may need to help them put words to their experience)
  • problem-solve for the next time

Emotion regulation skills

Children learn how to deal with big feelings from parents or caregivers, so these are skills the entire family can practice together:

  • Problem-solving skills - anger and other “big feelings” give you energy to deal with situations. Problem-solving skills help you use that energy to fix problems - not make them worse by taking your anger out on others or keeping your anger bottled up inside.
  • Steps in problem-solving:
    • figure out what the problem is from your child’s perspective
    • share your concerns with your child
    • work together to make a plan for next time
    • put the plan into action
    • look back to see what worked and what didn't work
  • Assertiveness skills are a way of communicating your needs or feelings in a way that respects everyone involved. An example is telling someone what you need without acting like your needs are more important than their needs.
  • Healthy thinking skills are about thinking in a balanced way. It means you look at situations realistically. Look for things that support or don't support your feelings, and think about other things that may have caused the situation. For example, you might feel very angry when a friend cancels plans, and you tell yourself that your friend always backs out of plans and much not like you. But if you think realistically - your friend usually doesn't back out of plans, and they mentioned that they've been very busy at work lately - you can see that your angry thoughts might not be balanced. Check out the interactive Healthy Thinking Activity, which can help children and youth learn to think about stressful situations in a more healthy and balanced way.

There are many self-help workbooks to help you learn anger management skills. You can also learn these skills from a mental health practitioner. See the "Where to from here" section below for more information.

There are story books and self-help workbooks to help your child or youth learn emotion management skills. They can also learn these skills from a mental health practitioner. See the "Where to from here" section below for more information.

There are story books and self-help workbooks to help your child or youth learn emotion management skills. They can also learn these skills from a mental health practitioner. See the "Where to from here" section below for more information.

General tips for helping children and youth deal with emotion regulation issues

  • Teach them words to describe their feelings so they can tell you what they feel.
  • Remember anger is never "wrong." But what we do when we're angry may not be right. Be sure they know you don't want them to "stop being angry," but that you want them to find different ways to express their anger.
  • Listen to them and empathize with their feelings. It shows you recognize and care about their feelings and encourages problem-solving.
  • Model helpful emotion regulation skills when you're dealing with your own feelings.
  • Help them learn relaxation or calming skills like deep breathing exercises or yoga.
  • Encourage activities that help to relax and calm themselves, like listening to music or writing in a journal.
  • Replace anger with a different behaviour. For example, count backwards from 10 or imagine a peaceful scene or pretend to blow bubbles. Practice the new behaviour together for a few minutes every day.
  • Notice and encourage the child or youth when they use these skills to cope with big feelings.

Healthy living for children and youth 

  • Stick to a routine, including regular meal times and a regular bedtime. This helps the child or youth to feel some control. You can find an interactive Bedtime Routine Activity here.
  • Make sure they get enough sleep. A child or youth may feel frustrated more easily and may be more likely to act out when tired.
  • Set aside regular time for exercise. Exercise is a good outlet for strong feelings.
  • Encourage them to use relaxation skills regularly.

Outside help for emotion regulation

If a child or youth has a lot of problems with managing their feelings, talk to a doctor or mental health professional. They can see if anything else is causing or adding to the problem. They can also refer to a specialist to help with specific problems.

A type of talk therapy called cognitive-behavioural therapy or CBT may help with big feelings. CBT teaches how thoughts, feelings and behaviours are connected. It also teaches important skills like problem-solving, assertiveness and relaxation.

Where to from here?

Talk to your doctor and look for help from a mental health professional by:

For additional information about options for support and treatment in BC, visit the Finding Help section of our site.

 

Below you will find some key resources. A full list of resources are on the right hand side bar.

 

The ALERT Program
An innovative program that supports children, teachers, parents, and therapists to choose appropriate strategies to support self-regulation in children and youth.

BC Children's Hospital

This is an agency of Provincial Health Services Authority, providing provincial tertiary mental health services to the citizens of British Columbia. Programs include: Adult Tertiary Psychiatry, Geriatric Psychiatry, Forensic Psychiatric Services, Child & Adolescent Mental Health, Women’s Reproductive Mental Health, as well as the Provincial Specialized Eating Disorders Program for children and youth located at the BC Children’s Hospital.

Provincial Health Services Authority

Provincial Health Services Authority (PHSA) is one of six health authorities – the other five health authorities serve geographic regions of BC.

Ministry of Health

British Columbia Ministry of Health

RBC Children's Mental Health Project

RBC Children’s Mental Health Project is RBC's cornerstone “health and wellness” pillar; RBC Children’s Mental Heath Project is a multi-year philanthropic commitment to support community-based and hospital programs that reduce stigma, provide early intervention and increase public awareness about children’s mental health issues.

BC Children's Hospital Foundation

Through a wide range of fundraising events and opportunities, The BC Children's Hospital Foundation is united with its donors by a single, simple passion - to improve the health and the lives of the young people who enter BC Children's Hospital every day.