Does your child have large emotional outbursts that seem to come out of nowhere? Or maybe small challenges or disruptions seem to elecit BIG feelings in them? I often hear parents talk about having to walk on eggshells in their home and we are no stranger to this feeling in our house!
A few weeks ago, I shared seven important executive function skills we develop as children and young adults. Number five is self-regulation of emotion. However, this skill builds upon the first four executive function skills. So to help our children improve their self-reguation, we need to go back down the ladder and strengthen the four executive function skills that come first. We can also implement tools and strategies in each of these areas while the skills themselves are developing.
Below are nine actionable steps. Pick one at the level your child is struggling and start to create some change in your family today.
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Start with a Strong Foundation
It is hard to control self-regulation of emotion when our basic needs are not met. There are also practices and routines we can incorporate into our daily lives that will help our overall regulation. So let’s start by helping our children build a strong foundation…
Sleep, Food, Exercise: When children are having trouble regulating their emotions, it is good to start with the basics. Are they getting enough sleep? Are they eating nourishing food on a regular basis? Are they getting enough exercise?
All of these are important long-term, but they can also affect day to day functioning. If you notice your child is having difficulty regulating on any given day, run through the above questions in your head. Maybe encouraging them to get a healthy snack or suggesting you go for a walk together can shift the mood. Or maybe you need to recognize they need to rest instead of following through on a request you had for them.
Start A Mindfulness Practice: Another strategy to build a strong foundation for regulation is to incorporate a mindfulness practice into our lives. These could include a gratitude practice, journaling, a breathing practice, or yoga. And if you are thinking ‘I am not going to be able to get my child to do one of those’, start with a simple one and you can model it for them. We can only control ourselves. So if we want our children to begin a new healthy practice, starting to model it ourselves will help us feel like we are making progress. And you may see personal benefits as well!
Check out these additional strategies to build a strong foundation for your child’s self-regulation of emotions, if you are still asking yourself “How can I improve my child’s brainpower“?
Develop Self-Awareness of Emotions
We often feels like our children’s emotional outbursts come out of nowhere. One second they seem fine and then the next they are in full blow up mode. There are a few reasons for this.
One, some kids are not aware of the signs in their body that indicate they are becoming dysregulated. Or if they are aware of them, they don’t have the skills to slow down and use strategies to become regulated.
Children who have Attention Deficti Hyperactivity Disorder have an additional reason for having emotional outbursts. Their brains are actually wired so that the pathway from the amygdala where we process emotions to the executive function area of the brain operates slower. It is the executive function area that is responsible for the self-awareness of the feeling and implementing strategies to slow down and regulate. So just a few second delay between feeling the emotion and becoming aware of it to begin to soothe the emotion can lead to big outbursts.
Model Awareness of Yourself Becoming Dysregulated: Our first step, will be to help our kids develop some awareness that they are becoming upset before they lose their cool. And one way we do this is through modeling our own self-regulation of emotion! That means we need to become aware of how we feel as we are becoming stressed and agitated, also known as dysregulated, and then share that with our kids when we are all in a regulated state. It may look something like this…
“You know earlier today, I started to get really overwhelmed and I came close to losing my mind. I was trying to answer an email and the dog started barking and I had some texts ding on my phone and then one of you needed help with math, which is perfectly normal, but I could feel all my muscles start to tighten and my brain started to say ergghh.”
If your child is listening and engaged, then you could share some ways that you dealt with these feelings…”so I stopped what I was doing and took some deep breaths and then figured out what was the most important thing to pay attention to at that moment and ignored all the rest.”
Ask Your Child What They Feel: After talking about what you feel in your body, you may ask your child what they feel when they become upset. ONLY ask this when they in a regulated mood and you are feeling well-connected to them. The first time you begin to talk about this, they may have no idea. But bringing it up periodically and asking later how they felt during a specific emotional outburst may help them increase their own awareness of what is happening in their bodies.
Executive function skill #2 is inhibition. This means the ability to stop and think before we act. You may also hear this explained as ‘impulse control’. I mentioned above how in children with ADHD the time it takes for the executive function skills to become activated in the brain is longer than the typical brain. This can lead to strong reactions before a child even realizes what is happening. Here are some strategies for dealing with that.
Allow Take-Backs: Many children realize after a strong emotional reaction that they didn’t really want to react in that way. So allow them to take it back. Remind yourself that it takes their brain a few extra seconds to respond appropriately and do not become upset yourself. If they don’t actually take it back, but look like they realize they made the situation worse, you can ask “do you want to try that again?”. And then move forward like the outburst never happened.
Say “Let’s Slow Down”: Sometimes when your child is becoming upset, you may recognize signs in their body even if they don’t. You may be tempted to tell them to calm down. But remember the saying “Never in the history of the world has anyone calmed down by being told to calm down.” 😊 So instead… say “Let’s slow down.” I like to model a deep breath right after I say this. One, we are helping our children realize they need to lengthen the time between what happened and their reaction. Two, we are letting them know that we are not the adversary, but are part of their team.
Coping Strategies: Soothers
Once we have slowed down, we need to actually start to calm down. (But we still shouldn’t say “calm down”! 😊) But often kids who have trouble with slowing down often have weak working memory as well. These are executive functions skills #3: non-verbal working memory and #4 verbal working memory. When these are weak, it makes it hard to pull up or visualize coping strategies when needed and harder to talk themselves into a calmer state. So you will want to have tools in place to help them bridge this gap.
Make A List of ‘Soothers’: There are all sorts of coping strategies. Some are healthy and some are not. Some poor fuel on the fire…like ‘venting’ or complaining about what you are upset about. Some are ‘soothers’, to borrow a term from Dr. Sharon Saline. These are strategies that will help your child start to calm down and regulate. So when your child is in a regulated mood and you are feeling well-connected to them, come up with a list of soothers together.
These may include things such as going for a walk, a breathing technique such as alternate nostril or box breathing, or some soothing phrases to say to oneself. Soothing phrases could be “I am safe.”, “I am ok.”, “This too shall pass.” or anything else that you feel might be helpful. A distraction ‘game’ like saying “find five objects that are green” or “find three things shaped like a circle” can be also be a great way to shift away from dysregulation.
There are some movements in this post that can help with calming, too…
Model the Soother: Now just because you made a list of soothers, doesn’t mean that your child is going to automatically use them the next time they become upset. Remember, weak working memory and being dysregulated can make it hard to recall the soothers when they need them. Once again, the only person you can control is yourself. So the next time your child is upset model the use of a soother. After you say “Let’s slow down”, you could add “why don’t we go for a short walk.” Or “find three items that are blue in the room”. If you know your child will not respond to your request, then model a breathing technique and/or say some soothing phrases to your self.
Pick A Card, Any Card: Your child may start to use some of the soothers on their own after you have modeled them a few times. Or you may need to continue to bridge that gap of a weak working memory. In this case, write each soother on an index card. When your child is having some sort of emotional outburst, hold the cards out to them and let them pick a soother. Also, make sure that these cards are kept somewhere your child can grab them on their own as the goal is for them to become independent in using soothing strategies.
And it is never too early to start teaching our kids coping strategies. Here are some emotional coaching ideas you can start using with preschoolers.
Regardless, if you were able to quickly defuse the emotional outburst using the techniques above or it all turned into a hot mess, you will need to eventually reconnect with each other. This reconnection should be a positive one and not focused immediately on the outburst that happened. Even if the experience left you feeling quite disrespected. Allow some time to pass before discussing what went well or not so well in managing the outburst. You always want to connect before trying to solve a problem or build skills. No one wants to collaborate with someone they are feeling disconnected to.
Maybe Discuss Later
I say ‘maybe discuss’ because it is possible a discussion could retrigger the whole situation. So you will have to decide if there is benefit to revisiting what happened or just letting it go. If you do discuss, wait until you have reconnected and bring up whatever the emotional outburst was in a non-judgmental way.
For example, you could say something like “I know you were really frustrated during that math assignment today. I bet that didn’t feel good.” As you discuss how it felt, share anything you wish you had done differently. And help your child think of some things they could have done differently. But do not force an apology. Forcing someone to apologize is only going to decrease connection.
If you want to even more ideas to help your children self-regulate…
Self-Regulation of Emotions Resources
ADHD Experts Podcast Episode #426: When ADHD Triggers Emotional Outbursts: Scripts for Your Flashpoints, Part 1 with Dr. Sharon Saline
ADHD Experts Podcast Episode #444: When ADHD Triggers Emotional Outbursts: Scripts for Your Flashpoints, Part 2 with Dr. Sharon Saline
Taking Charge of Adult ADHD (2022) by Dr. Russell Barkley