Emotional regulation is the process by which people manage their emotional experiences and their responses to all types of feelings, including very powerful emotions such as anxiety, anger, sadness and frustration.
The way we respond to our emotions, both mentally and behaviourally, has a major impact on our psychological wellbeing and our social experiences. When we fail to regulate our emotions properly our resulting behaviour can put our mental health and relationships with others at risk.
We begin to develop emotional regulation during infancy and the process continues throughout childhood and adolescence. However, for some children, such as those with sensory processing disorder (SPD), emotional regulation becomes more difficult. SPD is a condition in which the brain has difficulty responding to information that comes from the senses, including touch, sight and sound. Environmental stimuli can be overwhelming to children with SPD and this can make it incredibly difficult for them to self-regulate their resulting emotions.
What is the purpose of emotional regulation?
Emotional regulation allows us to monitor and manage our emotions. It involves identifying emotions, recognising when we feel them, and understanding how to express them. This regulation begins during infancy when facial expressions of core feelings such as happiness and sadness begin to develop. Later, particularly when children start school, they begin to develop the ability to differentiate their facial expressions to portray emotion within different social contexts and in line with societal norms. As they get older, children will also begin to understand that others' emotions may not be the same as their own and recognise that others will change their emotional expressions in line with what they are feeling.
During early childhood, children tend to rely on caregivers to provide emotional regulation and soothing; this is known as external emotional regulation. However, as they get older they begin to internally regulate their emotions by observing caregivers and peers, learning self-soothing skills, and seeing the reactions of others to their own emotional expressions.
Internal emotional regulation is influenced greatly by sensory processing, and a child's threshold for sensory stimuli has an important impact on their ability to regulate emotion. Emotional regulation can therefore be difficult for children with atypical sensory function, such as those with SPD or autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Alexithymia, when someone has difficulty labelling and understanding emotions, can often be a problem for those with atypical sensory function, and this can make it particularly difficult for children to recognise emotions being expressed by others and express their own emotions in ways that others can understand.
How can I help children with sensory processing disorder?
Children with atypical sensory function tend to experience emotions very differently than others and therefore behave in response to their emotions in ways which can lead to social judgements. Subsequently, they often feel pressured to change themselves in order to fit in. It is important to strike a balance between respecting and understanding their emotional responses while helping them to find suitable behaviours to cope with their feelings. The ACT Limit Setting tool is useful for this; it involves acknowledging the emotion, communicating the limit on the subsequent behaviour, and targeting an alternative, acceptable behaviour.
'The Zones of Regulation' by Leah Kuypers is an excellent book with lots of learning activities for children to understand how they're feeling, recognise different facial expressions for different emotions, and find soothing tools to help them self-regulate. It is a useful curriculum for teachers or caregivers to talk to their children about emotions and help them develop calming techniques and self-regulation tools.
For some ideas of games and activities to help children learn to self-regulate, check out the video from Kreative Leadership below.
This video outlines five games that children will find fun to play while learning important skills such as listening, controlling urges and resisting temptation, particularly in the context of interacting with other children. Games like this also offer opportunities to talk to children about the importance of developing such skills in fun and relatable contexts.
Emotion cushions to aid emotional regulation
Toys and objects can be incredibly helpful for children with sensory processing disorder to better manage and explore their feelings. The emotion cushions from Sensory Surroundings are a great example of this. Each cushion is in a different bright colour and features a monster face with a unique expression, and these embroidered designs offer a sensory feature that children with SPD or ASD might find soothing.
Children can use cushions like this to demonstrate the emotion they are feeling if they are non-verbal or are struggling to find the right words. Alternatively, the cushions could be used to open up a group discussion about emotion to help children with alexithymia to better recognise and understand different expressions. The cushion set could be useful at home or in a school, nursery or other learning environment, and young children without atypical sensory function might find them useful as they develop emotional regulation.
Emotional regulation is an important aspect of every child's development but for those with sensory processing problems, additional support is often needed to help them understand their own emotions and learn how to self-regulate. With the right support, understanding, conversations and learning activities, it is possible for these children to develop the tools they need to regulate their emotions and cope with their feelings.
A reference list is included in the footer of this post. However, we want to note a couple of great books and educational resources for further reading.
- The Zones of Regulation (2011) by Leah Kuypers M.A. Ed., OTR/L
- The Explosive Child (2006) by Ross W. Greene, Ph.D.
We’d love to hear about your experience with emotional regulation in children. If you have a good activity or a question, please share it by leaving a comment below.
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- Sensory World: Sensory Focus Magazine. The Emotional Needs of Children with Sensory Processing Issues (2014). By Theresa Kellam, PhD.
- Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. Sensory Processing Patterns and Emotion Regulation in Children Presenting with Externalizing Behaviors (2019). By Melanie Levitt.
- Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. Sensory, Emotional and Cognitive Contributions to Anxiety in Autism Spectrum Disorders (2017). By Mikle South and Jacqui Rodgers.