Over the last 15 years, we’ve attended way too many therapy sessions to even begin to count! While I don’t know exactly how many sessions we’ve attended, I do know that building emotional regulation has been a big part of the majority of those sessions. It hasn’t mattered whether we were seeing an OT, a speech therapist or psychologist, developing skills in emotional regulation has always been a core focus for us.
So, why is building emotional regulation so important? And, has all the effort we’ve put in over the years been worth it?
What is Emotional Regulation?
Emotional regulation is the ability to identify, acknowledge and manage emotions and our reactions to them. None of us are born with emotional regulation, it’s a skill we learn from early childhood through to adulthood. For kids on the autism spectrum, it can be difficult to identify and describe emotions, let alone learn to manage them. This is why teaching emotional regulation is an important part of most autism therapies overseen by OTs, speechies and psychologists.
Why is Emotional Regulation Important?
Emotional regulation is a vital life skill, helping us to manage our thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Being able to control how we express our feelings aids us to connect with others and behave in socially appropriate ways. It’s important that we learn how to regulate our emotions to help us navigate tricky situations and avoid escalation of conflict. Emotional regulation enhances long-term wellbeing, improves relationships, builds self-esteem, increases empathy, heightens self awareness and can lead to better overall health.
How to Build Emotional Regulation
The first step in building emotional regulation is to ensure your child can identify how they feel. If they don’t know how they feel, it makes it pretty difficult to learn how to regulate their emotions. For many autistic individuals, this can be challenging, especially if they have alexithymia, the inability to identify and describe how they feel.
The best way to talk about emotions with your child is to do so in a concrete way, starting with how their body looks and feels when they feel good and when they feel not so good. For instance, talking about the physical signs of excitement – the need to move their body, a racing heart and a funny feeling in the stomach. Or the feelings of sadness – a heavy feeling in the chest, sore head and tears.
Then you can work on giving them the words to verbalise these feelings, using a visual tool to help connect the physical signs to the emotion itself. There are many strategies available to build emotional regulation, including feeling thermometers, 5 point scales and emotion charts (which you can check out below).
One thing I’ve learned over the years is not to assume that my kids’ understanding will always match mine. I remember undertaking the Zones of Regulation with both kids and finding they had very different ideas of where certain emotions should fit.
For instance, Gilbert didn’t agree that bored should be in the blue zone – he thought it was better suited to yellow as it’s an emotion that annoys him and sets him on the path to eruption. This difference in thinking can derail your efforts to build emotional regulation skills if you don’t acknowledge your child’s point of view and work with it.
Tools & Strategies to Build Emotional Regulation
There are many different approaches to building emotional regulation. I’ve included four approaches that we’ve personally used over the years. We’ve benefitted from each one in different ways with some being more suited to younger or older kids.
Zones of Regulation
A framework to foster self-regulation and emotional control, this system is a cognitive behavioral approach created by Leah Kuypers. Categorizing the different ways we feel and states of alertness we experience into four concrete colored zones, the Zones provides strategies to control emotions, manage sensory needs and improve the ability to problem solve conflicts.
As mentioned earlier, we ran into some issues when my kids didn’t agree with where some feelings were zoned. This ended up being a learning opportunity for all of us, as it allowed my kids to talk about their reasoning, enabled their therapist and I to share ours and led to us being better able to understand each other, and our emotions.
Incredible 5 Point Scale
Created by Kari Buron, the 5 point scale encourages students to rate their emotions using a number, allowing them to provide information about how they’re feeling; become more effective in managing their thinking process; and implement effective strategies. Using a number instead of trying to describe an emotion helps students think efficiently in order to make good decisions in a variety of situations.
This is a great strategy for younger participants as, instead of having to name an emotion in the heat of the moment, they can indicate the level they are instead. It’s also a good way for older students to share how they feel in a coded way, without drawing too much attention to themselves. I also like the fact that regulation strategies are developed with the participant ahead of time, so they have a ready made list of ways they can help themselves, when they need it most.
The Alert Program
Centred around the question “how fast is your engine running?” this program uses the analogy of a car engine to help kids understand fast running engines (hyped up), low running engines (lethargic), and just right engines (alert and focused). This is a practical system to learn self-regulation and to teach effective emotional regulation strategies to cope with everyday situations.
We found this to be quite effective when the kids were younger, as it’s a fun way to talk about their emotions, plus they love acting out being a fast, slow and just right car! Used in conjunction with sensory strategies, this was our first foray into emotional regulation and helped our kids make those first connections between their body and their feelings.
Feelings thermometers help kids put a situation in perspective; build self-awareness; develop a self-management plan; and connect thoughts, feelings and actions. Talking about emotions in different intensities can be an abstract concept for kids, so using a thermometer to demonstrate a relevant and concrete scale can help explore the different sizes of feelings.
This is also a useful tool for analysing the size of reactions so kids can work on matching the size of their reaction to the actual size of the problem. We used this extensively with Gilbert in his primary school years, to help him recognise when he was overreacting to issues that weren’t actually so bad after all.
So, were all our many hours of therapy to build emotional regulation worth it? Yes, most definitely.
My kids can now tell me how they are feeling, in their own words. They have strategies they can use at home and at school, to help them cope with the emotional demands of daily life. They are more aware of the feelings of those around them and understand why it helps to manage their reactions around others.
As they grow into young adults, I hope they can continue to build their skills and find effective strategies to help them through the challenging years ahead.
If you are at the start of the journey, keep at it because it will be worth it. It’s going to take time, effort and persistence, but all that work will be worth it in the end – trust me!
How are you currently working towards building emotional regulation in your kids?