I have three girls’ aged between 4 and 9. Oh the emotions in our household at times.
Add an autism diagnosis into the mix and wowza, need I say more. How I manage to stay sane (let's say 80% of the time) no bloody idea!
SO, what is emotional regulation? Prior to my daughter, if someone asked, my answer would have been pretty simple: ‘ability to regulate and control emotions’. While this is pretty much the gist, when you have a child with autism the answer isn’t so black and white. In fact there are many many shades of grey!
A more in depth explaination - Self regulation involves having a set of skills that allows us to be able to stay in control of our emotions and behaviours. Having strong emotional regulation skills essentially means that you have the ability to adapt to situations that may cause emotions such as; anxiety, stress, overexcitement.
A lack of emotional regulation skills may mean that you are unable to cope with situations that bring on these emotions, you may overreact to social situations and have frequent meltdowns and emotional outbursts. You have obviously made it to this blog for a reason so I’m sure you're well accustomed to the behaviours that are present when self regulation skills are lacking. What a bloody ride, hey?
Children with autism tend to have a hard time understanding how they feel, how others feel and how to manage emotions. Therefore, they struggle to regulate reactions to strong feelings, in essence overwhelming situations and self-regulation is hard to master.
Establishing strong emotional self-regulation skills is important for many reasons.
-to behave in socially appropriate ways
-to assist in developing friendships
-to be able to make more appropriate decisions
-to help make interactions easier
-to be able to learn at school
-to be able to manage emotions
-to be able to better understand and respond to situations
-to understand other emotions that other people are feeling
-to recognise when things are upsetting to then be able to find adequate skills to cope
Activities to help foster emotional self-regulation skills
Here is an example of emotional regulation in relation to responses triggered by emotions. My girls often play ‘mums’, it's quite amusing actually as 90% of their playing episodes usually involve drinking (pretend) coffee and chatting about how their babies slept terribly!
Anyway whenever my eldest makes a random suggestion within their play my youngest child happily goes along with it whereas my middle child (ASD diagnosis) often gets distressed and can’t understand why their game had to be changed up, even the slightest. From here, emotions are heightened and any and all the things are now triggers and a meltdown is inevitable. She very much lacks emotional regulation techniques.
While these skills are quite difficult to master for children on the spectrum there are resources and activities that can help to assist in promoting and learning these skills. Essentially the goal is to teach them more about emotions to recognise how they are feeling, how others are feeling and appropriate ways to manage and regulate feelings.
Emotion stones are a great way to assist in teaching children about emotions. I made some recently and we have used them in a variety of ways. I printed off a variety of faces showing different emotions and stuck them to some stones/rocks using Mod Podge (using this ensures they are waterproof and last forever without tearing off). Another option is to simply draw some different emotions on stones using sharpie textas.
There are many ways you can use your stones to teach children about emotions.
-Make a double set and play memory and chat about the different facial features and emotions as you play.
-Have them in the middle and explain a scenario, for example “If someone told you that you couldn’t play the game because you don’t know the rules properly, how would that make you feel? Choose the rock which shows your feelings”. You can swap the roles around too so they can be the ones to give examples.
-Turn them over and have the child randomly choose one from the pile. Ask them what emotion the face is showing, how do we know this?
Drawing can be a relaxing way for children to take time out, calm and have a breather. It’s an emotional regulation strategy that can help shift unpleasant emotions to happier and calmer ones. There are two ways in which drawing can be beneficial: to assist children in becoming aware of their emotions and to work as a self-regulating tool. Too distract or to express.
If you can see your child heightened, you could suggest they have some quiet time and simply draw. This is drawing to distract; this can help to change the behaviours that were happening in their environment to divert their attention elsewhere and elevate their mood. My daughter will often now take herself to her room to sit at her desk and draw, it instantly brings calmness to my own world let alone hers.
Drawing to express can assist in helping them to tune into their emotions that they have trouble expressing in words. A strategy that her behaviour psychologist often uses. You could also ask them to draw a picture of their face which shows how they are feeling. This can open up a conversation about dealing with this emotion while also intervening before the emotions get too heightened.
You could also sit with them “I can see you are starting to feel frustrated. Maybe together we could draw a rainbow and each colour you can describe things that make you feel frustrated”.
Providing your child with visuals is a great way to remind them of how they are feeling and of possible self-regulating activities that may help them. I know that verbal communication becomes pretty useless when my daughter's emotions are heightened, so much so that now she is a little older I simply get the hand to signal ‘nope, stop talking, not listening’. It's funny as before I understood I was like ‘how bloody rude’ but now I'm more intune it actually makes me proud that she understands when she can’t talk and take in any more info. One day we may come up with a less blunt way haha but baby steps for now.
To implement visuals you could print off some pictures or photos showing a variety of faces (happy, sad, angry) and then also have some pictures of activities or therapy tools (bubbles, chewy toys, fidgets, noise cancelling headphones) that assist your child to self-regulate.
When your child is feeling distressed you could show them the pictures “Can you show me how you are feeling?”, followed by showing them their self-regulating tools “Can you choose one thing to do for 5 minutes to see if it helps you feel calm again?”
Doing this time and time again can eventually assist in teaching them that they have tools they can use to help regulate and bring some calmness back to their world.
5 senses grounding activity
This activity (also known as the 5,4,3,2,1 technique) assists in bringing heightened children back to the present, the great thing is that it can be done anywhere.
It’s a coping tool for stressful situations and can help to regulate emotions by helping children to stay calm, to stay present and to stay in control.
Have your child put their hand up showing all 5 fingers (alternatively you could use your own hand) and point to one finger at a time.
-Take 5 deep breaths
-Look around the room and ask your child to name or point to 4 things that they can see.
-Then they show 3 things that they can touch
-Followed by 2 things that they can hear
-Finished with 1 thing that they can smell.
Its an effective distracting technique that has positive benefits with tuning into all of the 5 senses.
This is a cute activity that can be ongoing and really helps children to tune in and understand their emotions. All you need is some jars or containers with lids and print off faces showing different emotions. It's up to you with how many you have and want to use. For example, you might have a happy face jar, an excited face jar, a worried or anxious face jar and an angry face jar.
Ask your child to describe a time that they felt each emotion and either one of you can write it down on a piece of paper to put in the jar. You could add what happened, how they dealt with this emotion etc. The aim is to bring awareness to each emotion and for them to acknowledge particular times that they felt this way. This can be an ongoing activity that they can add to and something that the whole family can join in on. In a month or so its nice to go back and read them together, to reflect. It sort of acts as a bit of a dairy or journal for them.
Zones of regulation
The Zones of regulation is a popular framework that is designed to teach children to eventually be able to regulate their own emotions.
It tunes in on alerting children about feelings and how they react, encouraging them to get back to neutral, their safe zone.
There are 4 zones. Feelings and actions will determine what zone they are in.
-Red zone. Overjoyed, angry, panicked and terrified.
-Yellow zone. Worried, frustrated, silly and excited.
-Blue zone. Sad, bored, tired and sick.
-Green zone. Happy, just right, focused, calm and proud.
The aim is to bring awareness to these different zones and teach your child about the feelings associated within each one. You then teach strategies to help bring them back to the green zone, so they feel centred and just right again.
There are many ways in which this can be taught, using a visual to remind them of the different zones is a good starting step. There is a great deal of information about this technique and therapists will also be familiar with it to assist in guiding you and your child.
It’s a fantastic regulation tool that can assist your child to identify their feelings and to help them to understand the tools they need to self-regulate.
Hopefully some of these activities will help to bring some awareness around emotions and provide strategies that can assist your child with their regulation. Parenting, it really is a tough gig, so be gentle with yourself while trying to navigate through this complex and often exhausting stage.