The science of emotional regulation
Therapeutically treating child patients can be difficult, even when it comes to something like emotion regulation, which seems so natural for adults. Scientifically, however, emotion regulation is not something we are born with – it is something we learn. It should be the primary goal of parents to teach their children ways they can healthily regulate their emotions from an early age, so children can effectively continue in their development. A child’s ability to regulate their emotions has a significant impact on friends, family, and of course, themselves. Without this control, children can develop anger management issues or other emotion-related problems further down the track. In this guide, we’ll explain a little more deeply about what emotion regulation is, before providing you with 10 useful and effective activities that will help kids regulate their feelings.
Overview of emotional regulation for kids
Essentially, emotional regulation refers to the ability to recognize, understand, and manage one’s feelings. When children are able to regulate their emotions, they will be much more able to handle difficult situations and act resiliently when faced with challenges. Emotional regulation can also reduce the frequency with which children become overwhelmed or upset, improving their ability to feel calm and in control. Emotional regulation can be taught in different ways, and admittedly it can be a difficult task with children, considering the limitations to their vocabulary and the challenges they sometimes have with expressing their needs.
Learning emotional regulation is often a task undertaken by parents, who teach their children the names of certain emotions and encourage them to explain how they are feeling. However, for children who are experiencing developmental issues, or have been diagnosed with a disorder that impacts their ability to express their emotions (including autism spectrum disorder), then therapeutic treatment may be a good solution.
Importance of emotional regulation for kids
Emotional regulation, alongside other key components of social, physical, and psychological development, is a very important skill to learn from a young age. In addition to the effects, we mentioned above, having these skills also has a significant impact on the child’s future development, as effective emotional regulation can result in better problem-solving ability, and improved communication. Children will learn how to set boundaries and by doing so, establish strong relationships with the people in their life. Importantly, emotion regulation also enables them to manage stress and anxiety in a healthy way, which can reduce the likelihood of developing negative mental health disorders sometime in the future. The healthy development of a child is extremely multifaceted, but it is crucial that you don’t undermine the importance of emotional regulation. If you think that your child is struggling with their ability to recognize, understand, or manage their emotions, then engaging them in specific activities may be a good option. These activities encourage children to develop healthy coping skills and figure out the best ways that they can manage their feelings and communicate these to the people in their life.
10 effective emotional regulation activities for kids
So how exactly do emotional regulation activities work? There are plenty of different tasks that you can choose from to help teach children these skills, and we’ve compiled a list of 10 activities that we think are the most effective:
Allow kids to take the lead
It’s important when teaching children emotional regulation that you let them take the lead. They should be able to express their emotions, rather than suppress them, and it is your role to facilitate this openness. Encourage children to feel their emotions and talk about them if they know how, and try your hardest not to invalidate or minimize their emotional experiences.
Use camel pose to relieve pent-up emotion
Using physical exercises, like yoga, can be a particularly useful tool for releasing pent-up emotions. The camel pose encourages children to bend backward and open their chest up toward the sky and is a movement associated with releasing negative energy and reducing stress.
Learn to HALT
HALT is an acronym (Hungry, Anger, Lonely, and Tired) that can help prevent emotional outbursts from occurring. You should teach the child in question this acronym and ask them to run through it whenever they are feeling a big emotion. They may discover that their frustration or annoyance is instead due to being hungry, angry, lonely, or tired, and they can then communicate this to others.
Use guided breathing
Guided breathing encourages children to visualize the inhale and exhale of their breath. It can help to center individuals in the present and begin to understand how self-regulation works.
Children sometimes struggle to name their emotions, due to a limited vocabulary and experience managing emotional experiences. To help them communicate how they are feeling, you can ask them to draw their emotions or make a collage using different materials. When they have finished, they can explain the drawing to you, and from here they will be much more capable of naming and explaining their feelings.
Breathing and mindful exercises
Breathing exercises are a fantastic way to calm down, allowing people to focus on the present. Teaching children basic breathing exercises can help prevent emotional outbursts, and deescalate potentially harmful behavior. Practicing mindful breathing helps children regulate their emotions and minimize the risk of them becoming overwhelmed.
Yoga and physical exercises
The camel pose is not the only yoga movement that has benefits for emotional regulation – in fact, all forms of physical exercise can be advantageous. Exercise reduces stress hormones, improves mood, and increases energy levels. These positive side effects will help with children’s general well-being, reducing the likelihood of negative emotional outbursts.
Mindful body scan
A mindful body scan requires the child to either sit or lie down. Starting from the top of their head, they should tense their muscles and pay attention to the sensations they experience. Moving downwards from there, they should scan the whole way down their body until they get to their toes. If they have a sensation that feels unusual, this is totally fine. Encourage them to move their body in whatever way feels right, and explain their sensations to you afterward. It is also a good idea to encourage the child to focus on breathing mindfully as they complete the body scan.
Teaching and practicing self-care
Self-care is often associated with being an adult, but it can be just as useful for children. You should actively encourage children to routinely engage in self-care activities. These could include doing exercise, having a bath, reading, playing with a pet, or drawing/painting. Participating in activities that we enjoy can help improve our mood and reduce our stress levels, thus regulating our emotions effectively.
Learning a new hobby
Just as with practicing self-care, learning a new hobby can be an effective way to improve a child’s mood and general well-being. Encouraging children to try something new, whether this is a sport, game, or instrument, will help boost their self-esteem and feelings of confidence.
Teaching children how to healthily regulate their emotions can be a difficult task. Because of their limited vocabulary, it is often the case that children struggle to explain the emotions they have. Regardless, there are some especially useful activities you can employ that will encourage children to regulate their emotions in a positive and meaningful way. Understandably, different children will have different needs when it comes to managing their emotions, and it is your responsibility to cater to these differences. Take the time to ask children questions that encourage them to open up about their feelings, and ensure you are empathetic, open-minded, and responsive to their needs at all times.