What is it?
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 how to show they are frustrated or unhappy.
How do I know?
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.
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, 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 (the 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 challenges like seizures, learning problems, autism spectrum disorder, or a mental illness 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 illness like:
- oppositional-defiant disorder
- conduct disorder
- intermittent explosive disorder
- anxiety disorders (may be easily irritated and seem angry)
- mood disorders such as depression or bipolar disorder (may be easily irritated and seem angry)
- post-traumatic stress disorder (while anger is a normal reaction to scary events, if it doesn't go away it could be a sign of PTSD)
- adjustment disorder
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 (teach them words to describe how they feel, teach them methods for calming down such as counting and deep breathing, and model through words and actions when you are upset)
- 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
- use 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 and create a calm-down plan
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 must not like you. But if you think realistically - your friend usually doesn't back out of plans, they mentioned that they've been very busy at work lately - you can see that your angry thoughts might not be balanced.
Changing Unhealthy Thoughts
Story books, self-help workbooks or a mental health professional to help you and your child learn anger management and emotion management skills.
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.
- 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 get help from a mental health professional by:
- Getting a mental health assessment and support through your local Child and Youth Mental Health team (through a walk-in intake clinic in your community).
- contacting your Employee Assistance Plan (EAP), if you have this option.
- contacting a private psychologist or counsellor.
For additional information about options for support and treatment in BC, visit our interactive ‘Ask Kelty Mental Health’ tool, where you can type in the questions you have about accessing services and supports.