I’m excited to be talking about emotional regulation and ADHD for the next series of blogs, as they are topics extremely personal to me.

My son (almost 7) has struggled with ADHD and the emotional regulation associated with it since he was a toddler.

Of course, it’s inappropriate to diagnose ADHD prior to the age of 5 or 6 because many toddler and young child behaviors mimic ADHD symptoms. However, my husband and I always knew our son’s emotional responses were not typical and were a great struggle for him.  

His anxiety would dominate him and he was often unable to manage his explosive emotions. I read every book on “spirited kids,” “explosive kids” etc. Some things worked, but many did not. 

Maturity, brain development, and working diligently on emotional intelligence and coping strategies have been most successful.  

These were all implemented, of course, with dietary changes and nutritional supplementation.  We have come a tremendous way, but we still have work to do so he can live the most fulfilling life. 

But there is definitely hope if you have a child struggling with emotional regulation and ADHD and I would love to help you and your child manage those big emotions in those little bodies! 

So, let’s talk about emotional regulation…

What is emotional regulation? Emotional regulation is “the ability to respond to the ongoing demands of experience with the range of emotions in a manner that is socially tolerable and sufficiently flexible to permit spontaneous reactions as well as the ability to delay spontaneous reactions as needed,” according to the most widespread definition

If that was as confusing as Snoop Dogg and Martha Stewart’s friendship, we can break it down together. In simpler terms, self-regulation skills enable us to monitor and determine what emotions we experience, act upon, and display.

No matter our age, this can be difficult for even the healthiest of people– and for children with special needs, it may seem impossible. Read on for strategies, tools, and ways to help your child’s emotional regulation– built for children with special needs.

What is emotional regulation?

What is emotional regulation and why is it so important? Emotional regulation is important because it empowers us to choose our emotional responses and actions. Fortunately, emotions don’t simply happen to us, and we can respond in three ways:

  • We can initiate actions triggered by emotions. (Not ideal).
  • We can inhibit actions triggered by emotions. (Also not ideal).
  • We can modulate responses triggered by emotions. (Best choice)!

We can choose what emotions are important out of the countless emotional stimuli we receive each day. and we use our emotional regulation skills to respond in ways that help, not harm, us.

While we all learn this skill, it may be a bit more difficult for children struggling with an anxiety disorder, PANDAS, learning disability, ADHD, or other special needs. We already know that they may be more likely to struggle with negative feelings and poor self-esteem.

In one promising study, children who were taught emotional regulation skills received 46% less disciplinary referrals at school in just four months. Properly managing emotional reactions can affect a child’s life in a positive, meaningful way.

Emotion regulation strategies can be taught, and learning these skills can increase a child’s well-being, positive emotions, and ability to choose responding over reacting.


Emotional Regulation Strategies in Childhood Development

All of this information may leave you wondering: how do you emotionally regulate? 

There are many strategies of how you can emotionally regulate in childhood development. Here are the major strategies for improving a child’s regulation processes, though it should be noted that not all are equally helpful or positive:

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is a psychotherapy technique used to help individuals improve their distress tolerance, control negative thoughts, understand and moderate their emotions, improve quality of life, and set goals for the future. 

DBT involves both individual therapy and group work. The emotion regulation skills taught include:

  • Being aware of both positive and negative emotions, and how to identify them.
  • The ability to name and label emotions.
  • Self-awareness about one’s current feelings.
  • Knowing and using desirable reactions in everyday life.
  • Improved ability to manage stress and use positive coping techniques.

DBT is often not implemented until a child is 10 or older. 

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT or cognitive therapy) may help children with anxiety worry less and increase their emotional awareness. However, this and other studies express concern that it does not affect regulation of other emotions like anger or sadness. 

Situation selection refers to the strategy of keeping the child away from situations that will be harmful or negatively impact their emotional experience. This is about helping a child learn to choose what situations they place themselves in, considering their own reactions in advance.

Situation modification is the term used for the attempt to change the emotional tone of a situation, whether through physical distancing, humor, changing the subject, or another method. 

Exercise can be effective in decreasing perceived stress and emotional distress in just two months, according to one study (not to mention, getting active improves a child’s physical health)!

Attentional deployment can take many forms of redirecting attention either toward or away from an emotionally-charged situation. This may look like:

  • Distraction — while this isn’t a long-term option for helping your child’s emotional regulation, short-term distraction may temporarily help with emotion dysregulation. 
  • Other methods include worry, rumination, and thought suppression, all of which are “maladaptive,”  or have negative results over time.

Cognitive change is a way of changing how the child processes the situation so as to alter its meaning in their mind. This can be done through:

    • Reappraisal, in which an individual reinterprets a situation or event to give it a new emotional meaning. In most cases, this is considered a positive strategy. For example, something that a child previously thought was “the end of the world” is now just a bad day at school. 
    • Distancing, referring to a child’s ability to remove oneself from the situation and see things objectively, can be quite helpful. In fact, it’s been shown to decrease negative reactions, heart rate, and blood pressure when used as a strategy.
    • Good-natured positive humor can help with emotional regulation, but negative humor does not have the same results. 
  • Biofeedback may be used to train the brain to recognize the emotional component of decision making, which helps improve decision quality and reaction times. A review of biofeedback strategies using serious games found that, across 16 clinical trials, the improvements in emotional regulation were significant.

As you can see, there are a myriad of strategies for helping your child cope positively with their feelings. You don’t have to live with a tiny version of Bruce Banner/The Hulk!


How to Foster Emotional Regulation with Children

How do we foster emotional regulation with children? As a parent, you likely know that huge positives can happen at home. (If you don’t know how much you impact your kids, check out This Is Us and bring some tissues). 

What are emotional regulation skills? Emotional regulation skills help people handle and express their emotions. They should be taught within the family, and there are many age-appropriate options that you can do with your little one to walk them through processing their feelings:

  • Show and tell — don’t just tell your child how to self-regulate, show them with your own behavior! Children often model what they see at home. When you display positive coping strategies, they see a practical example to follow.
  • Take five — ask a child to delay his or her response instead of reacting immediately. Studies show that taking a break and completing a distraction task can lessen the severity of a response.
  • Top the charts — when children don’t have adequate emotional vocabulary, it is difficult for them to articulate their needs and struggles. Creating a feelings chart is one effective way to help them decipher, explain, and regulate their emotions. You may even want to equip family members with this tool, empowering them to help your child have conversations about feelings. It takes a village!
  • Cause and effect — clarifying consequences, especially for children with special needs, eliminates guesswork for them. Whether it’s chores and rewards or tantrums and losing their Xbox privileges, create clear consequences so they can understand the impact of their choices and behavior. Talk these scenarios through with them.
  • Breathwork — this brings them to the present moment and brings them to their body. Additionally, breathwork can benefit both mental and physical health.
    • Ask your child to take slow breaths and count to 5 to inhale, and then 7 to exhale. Repeat until they feel more calm.
    • Encourage your child to put one hand on the heart and one on the belly, noticing how they each rise and fall differently during deep breaths.

Your friends, family, and support network may benefit from you sharing a few of these techniques. A reminder to be compassionate and use these tools is never amiss.

A Functional Approach to Special Needs

If you’re here and reading this article, it’s likely because you want to do everything possible to help your child! 

We have been in your shoes, and we understand. While we highly encourage therapy in most of our cases, we have a few other recommendations up our sleeve:

  • Diet and nutrition — children with special needs tend to be picky eaters and to have more food allergies than others. A natural, gluten- and dairy-free diet will likely work wonders, as will an allergy test and nutritional assessment to determine their needs. Removing gluten and dairy was a game changer for my son!
  • Removing toxins — many children with special needs also have high concentrations of heavy metals, pesticides, or other toxins in their system.
  • Improving immune function and removing pathogens — stress can actually take a toll on the immune system, and the microbiome of children with special needs can also need some help.

It’s not easy dealing with emotional regulation challenges in children, and it’s important to talk to healthcare practitioners who understand. Contact The M Center in Roswell, GA for a consult today.


Emotional Regulation Disorder

What is poor emotional regulation? Poor emotional regulation can cause problems in reactions and judgement, friendships, work, school, and stress management. 

In emotional dysregulation, negative emotions can run amok and dramatic responses are common.

However, a more intense condition can be known as emotional regulation disorder or borderline personality disorder. Individuals with this disorder can present exaggerated, impulsive emotional reactions.

These may look like fits of anger, accusing, crying, hysterics, accusations, emotional instability, insecurity, and feeling worthless. DBT, a treatment mentioned above, is also an empirically supported, effective treatment for borderline personality disorder.


Emotional Regulation Skills in Healthy Adults

You’re the adult here, but you’re still human. How do you emotionally regulate? You can emotionally regulate by using any of the strategies or exercises mentioned above!

Furthermore, you may try mindfulness, gratitude journaling, engaging in a hobby, or building a support network of friends, family, and professionals. It’s never too late to start learning how to regulate your emotions.


Looking to the Future

The future is bright when it comes to empowering your child (or yourself) to regulate emotions. These skills can be learned with practical tools and good modeling in your home, and will improve your child’s world and relationships.

One final note: you are doing a great job parenting your child with special needs! While it’s a rewarding task, it’s not always an easy one. In all this talk of emotional regulation, don’t forget to take the time to notice your own feelings, too.


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