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  • Belinda Robertson

What is Emotional Regulation

Emotions are a part of our everyday life – happy, sad, angry, scared, excited, just to name a few. Emotional regulation refers to our ability to manage and respond to our emotions in a socially appropriate manner. We develop our ability to regulate our emotions throughout our childhood. Just like some people can be more emotional than others, others can be better at regulating their emotions.

An important part of emotional regulation is interoception. Interoception is one of the lesser known senses, and involves the sense of knowing what is going on inside our bodies. Receptors inside our organs, including the skin, send information to our brains to tell us what is going on inside our body. This enables us to know when we are thirsty, hungry, hot, cold or when we need to go to the toilet. This interoception sense also allows us to “feel” our emotions, by noticing our body cues which help us to interpret which emotion or emotions we are experiencing.

Emotional regulation allows us to calm ourselves down when we are feeling upset, resist high emotional reactions to upsetting situations, to be able to react to frustration without having a meltdown or tantrum, and to adapt to changes in circumstances or expectations.

It is important to note the difference between tantrums and meltdowns. A tantrum is generally a behaviour related to something that the child needs or wants and can usually be shaped by rewarding desired behaviours. Whereas, a meltdown is a response to being overwhelmed with emotions and feelings and can take much longer to recover.

What Does Emotional Regulation Look Like?

Children who have reduced emotional regulation can respond in different ways. Some children will have instantaneous blowups or outbursts where there are minimal warning signs. For example, a child is told no when they ask for a lollypop at the supermarket and they throw themselves on the floor screaming. Other children will demonstrate a slow build-up of these emotions over time and eventually all of a sudden these built up emotions will explode.

It is important to consider the age of your child when considering whether your child has emotional regulation skills. For example, a meltdown because you said no when requesting a lollypop is an acceptable reaction for a 2 year old, but if a 6 year old reacted the same way this would be an example of reduced emotional regulation skills.

How Can We Help Children with Emotional Regulation Issues:

  • Practice recognising and labelling different emotions – for example identifying happy/sad faces and moving onto more complex emotions.

  • Practice identifying emotions in themselves – recognising the body cues they experience for different emotions – for example when I am feeling nervous my tummy feels funny

  • Practice identifying emotions in other people

  • Help children to be able to express their feelings – for example labelling when they feeling sad and trying to investigate why they feel this way. There are also a range of aids we can use to assist with this.

  • Help children to be able identify and implement regulation or coping skills to be able to appropriately react to their feelings – for example practicing different strategies and finding which strategy works best for your child. Some children benefit from having a tool kit to help regulate themselves such as fidget toys, and others like activities to calm themselves such as deep breathing, counting to 10, having a drink of water, animal walks and heavy movement.

Occupational Therapists also use a range of programs to assist with developing emotional regulation skills, such as:

  • ALERT program -

  • Zones of Regulation Program -

Please talk to your Occupational Therapist if you require further support with your child for their emotional regulation skills.


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