In this article I explain and explore what emotional regulation is. Then I’ll talk you through five emotional regulation activities for children.
These activities are designed to help children to learn and build on important skills and techniques to enable them to evaluate and navigate different situations effectively and safely.
Absolutely everyone experiences emotions – you, me, our children, even our pets.
Each day we face many different emotionally stimulating situations that require emotional reactions or responses.
Emotion self-regulation is one of a child’s biggest developmental tasks.
Their capacity to regulate their emotional state and responses can affect relationships with family and peers, academic performance and ability to thrive.
In essence, emotional regulation is vitally important!
What is ‘Emotional Regulation?
Simply put, emotional regulation is the ability to manage strong emotions.
Our thoughts, feelings and actions.
Emotional regulation is a skill that allows us to modulate or adapt emotions appropriately according to the situation and environment in response to the thoughts and feelings we have about it.
Where Does the Skill of Emotional Regulation Come From?
Emotional regulation is not just about learning ‘self-control’ or ‘behaving well’.
Research tells us that self-regulation is influenced by both biology and environment, including these four key aspects:
- Physical: genetics, temperament, physical abilities.
- Emotional: personality, exposure to trauma, ability to inhibit and manage impulse responses.
- Cognitive: ability to focus, manage distractions and frustrations.
- Social and Environmental: interpersonal interactions, empathy and values.
How Do Children Learn Self-Regulation?
A vital foundation for learning emotion regulation is developing a strong attachment relationship with at least one adult in early life.
In a healthy attachment, the adult at first soothes the young child as they do not have the skills to do this alone.
Over time, a child gradually learns to manage big feelings for themselves. They observe how self-regulating adults manage strong feelings, mimicking and internalising these techniques.
Even as teens and adults though, some intense emotions may feel too big to handle alone.
It’s healthy for people to seek out support and “co-regulation”.
Co-regulation is characterised as warm and responsive interactions that provide the support, coaching, and modelling children need to “understand, express, and modulate their thoughts, feelings, and behaviours” (Murray et al. 2015).
Emotional Regulation: Recognising Emotions
There are 6 fundamental emotions that human beings experience:
The first step to emotion self-regulation is recognition.
When children observe or experience an emotion for the first time, they may not understand what that emotion means. They may not yet understand the context in which the emotion appears (or doesn’t).
This is where verbal feedback and intonation can help.
For example: “Wow, you were jumping with excitement” or “you’re looking sad.”
The next time they experience the same emotion, a child may link it to their past experience and messaging, attaching its meaning and context to the new experience.
Many children learn emotions by developing awareness of the accompanying bodily sensations.
They are different for everyone.
If your child “goes from 0 to 100” in their emotions, start by helping them spot the early sensations, then thinking about how they build.
What does “anxious” or “worried” feel like in their body?
A tingling in the stomach?
Tight fists and clenched toes?
By naming these your child will be ore likely to spot anxiety building next time. However, it takes a great deal of repetition for some children to learn to spot their bodily sensations.
Why is Emotional Self-Regulation Important?
Emotional self-regulation is a skill which helps children feel empowered to deal effectively with tricky situations.
Therefore, successful self-regulation:
- Helps ground a child when they experience big emotions.
- Supports children and young people to feel good about themselves. In fact, lack of self-regulation often contributes to a sense of shame, anxiety that some emotions are “out of control”, and other complex emotions.
- Helps children to cope and thrive within friendships and relationships.
- Can help children do well at school.
Emotion Regulation Skills: Making Smart Choices
When children learn and use skills to regulate their emotions instead of acting impulsively, they are able to make smarter choices and find healthy and effective ways of dealing with challenges.
Smart choices are those which ultimately benefit the young person or those around them.
For example, when another child “winds James up” at school, he chooses to apply deep pressure to his arms to regulate himself rather than hitting the other child.
Deep pressure is a technique James has practised in advance.
It stops James getting into trouble.
It reduces the chances of the other child winding James up again, because they did not get the angry reaction they wanted.
TAKE THE QUIZ!
Emotional Regulation in Children: Impulsive Reactions Vs Regulated Responses
Amy was really excited about going to the cinema with friends, but it snowed on the day and the trip was cancelled.
Amy was really upset.
She would usually cry and shout about how unfair things were. However, with some help from her Dad, Amy was able to stay calm, process what had happened and think about an alternative plan.
For older children, learning the skills to self-regulate without constantly relying on external scaffolding and direction, develops a positive pathway towards independence.
Amy had a little bit of input from Dad who suggested she could book another date. Amy agreed this was a great idea, but she also thought about something different to do on the day herself and had a great time hosting an online quiz for her friends.
5 Emotional Regulation Activities for Kids
Emotional regulation activities for kids are the perfect way to explore, try out and develop their self-regulation skills.
They may have a hard time understanding why some of their responses work and some don’t and they can’t always have what they want.
There are many different ways that children can actively learn about emotional regulation which can be lots of fun too!
Here are five activities to consider. Most are designed for younger children but you can adapt these to suit older kids too.
1. Mood Cards: Emotional Regulation For Kids
In my counselling practice, I use ‘Mood Cards’ with children, including teenagers. They are a great tool in exploring how they express their feelings and what other people see.
Why not print and cut out some pictures of people with specific emotions?
Place them in a lucky dip bag.
Pick one at a time.
See how many your child can name, describe and perhaps even identify with.
Ask them to describe a time or situation when they felt this emotion.
What did they do?
Did things go as expected?
Are there better ways they could handle this emotion next time?
2. Emotional Regulation Breathing Strategies
When emotions are big or seem to be taking over, breathing exercises can be an incredibly helpful way of relaxing the body, calming down brain activity and recalibrating from emotional dysregulation.
Here’s a deep breathing exercise your child could try.
a) Lie on the back on the floor with a pillow under the head and knees.
b) Place a hand on the tummy.
c) Breathe in through the nose and let the tummy fill up with air. Feel the tummy rise when breathing in.
d) Breathe out through the nose.
e) Take three more full, deep breaths.
3. Stories as Emotional Regulation Activities for Kids
When my youngest child was little, we ‘read’ picture books.
Not only did this build on her vocabulary skills, it allowed us to work out what was happening in the story by describing the people, situations and what they might be saying and feeling.
Find a book with lots of pictures to read.
Ask your child to describe what the faces or actions of the characters mean.
With teens you could adapt this to talk through a scenario in a movie or TV series.
You could also:
- Write a “story-board” together.
- Play a video game together and describe what the person or character is doing or how they might be feeling.
- Use role play or puppet shows to tell stories and describe emotions in a fun way.
- Create a playlist to represent different emotions. How is the music telling the story in each song/piece? How might the singer/composer be managing the emotion?
4. Playing Board Games For Emotional Regulation in Children
I’m sure you will agree that board games can stir up some intense emotions! That makes them a brilliant practise ground for emotion regulation in children.
So… Find a fun game that you’ll all enjoy playing.
To start with choose a game that is not too complex, and doesn’t cause too much drama. For example, Uno may be a better choice than Monopoly to start with.
Without even realising, your child will be learning a whole range of emotional self-regulation skills.
- Flexibility of thinking as they play against other players and adapt to the other person’s moves.
- Impulse control.
- Coping with winning and losing.
5. The Incredible 5 Point Scale: A Structured Emotion Regulation Activity
Often when children are over-stimulated and emotionally dysregulated, they switch to “survival mode”.
At this point they may experience being in full fight or flight mode.
Designed by Kari Dunn Buron, The Incredible 5 Point Scale can be personalised to situations and emotions that your child might be finding difficult and when they don’t know what to do or how to feel better.
Parents or teachers work with a child to develop their awareness of what an emotion looks and feels like at different levels of intensity, from 1-5.
Level 1 is always little and 5 is always big. It is not ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.
Once you and your child establish their scale, you can take action!
For example, perhaps my excitement is a 4 but it needs to be a 2 or a 1, because I am on stage in my school concert and I need to be calm.
Perhaps I could:
- Engage in deep, slow breathing (which I have practised regularly at home).
- Do some repetitive, rhythmic movements – such as rubbing my hands – which calm the brain stem.
The incredible 5 point scale can also be used preventatively.
Prior to the concert, activities to help bring excitement down to a 2 or a 1 might include:
- Intense exercise to release pent-up adrenaline and cortisol.
- Listening to calming music.
How To Support Development of Emotional Regulation in Children
It takes time and practise for children to learn how to handle their emotions.
Often our expectations are unrealistic.
Even adults struggle to manage emotions in certain situations. Children and teens do not yet have fully developed brains, optimised for managing emotions.
When they can’t yet manage an emotion, young people may show impulsive, anxious, irritable or aggressive behaviour.
So, in addition to the emotional regulation activities for children, what is the best way to help your child strengthen critical skills for emotion regulation and find helpful ways to interact and respond?
Manage Your Own Emotions to Help Your Child’s Emotion Regulation Skills
Increase your awareness of your own responses and emotions. Label them. Journalling can be a helpful way of doing this.
Talking your emotions out loud will enhance your child’s emotional awareness and development.
By giving a name to the emotions you are feeling, your child can learn what you look like when you are feeling a particular way.
For example: “I feel frustrated – I’m not sure I can manage to finish this”, or “I am super excited, let’s go straight away”.
Emotional Regulation For Kids: Ensure They Have a Safe Space
When I conduct counselling assessments, I always ask children where their ‘safe place’ is.
This is usually described as somewhere they can go to feel calm, soothed, relaxed and comfortable (their bedroom, a den, a tent in the garden).
When emotions run high, having a comfort corner can help children to regulate their emotions and pursue a calm state, somewhere that feels safe.
It’s amazing how much impact a calming environment can have upon our internal state.
Your child should learn this at the earliest opportunity.
Talking and Listening as Emotional Regulation Activities
Young children in particular will need your support to regulate their emotions.
Remember – when children react strongly it’s usually because they are in ‘survival mode’ and their nervous system is in full flight.
This can also be true of older children, particularly in times of crisis, through puberty and other transitions during the teenage years. Talking and listening to them is crucial.
Find regular “micro-opportunities” to chat without pressure. This might be a car journey, chatting whilst making a meal, or going for a stroll together.
Be Present to Support Emotional Regulation
When your child is struggling with difficult emotions, their brain is usually working quickly, trying to make sense of everything.
Get close to them, make eye contact and listen without distraction.
Showing empathy and understanding can help to ground them.
It will make them feel safe and heard.
How to Help a Child Regulate Their Emotions: Keep Realistic Expectations
Help your child to tap into their emotional intelligence to develop healthy ways of coping with changes in their environment.
You can offer support through clear instructions, positive reinforcement, practice and feedback.
However, don’t expect perfection.
Your child’s ability to cope with emotion may vary depending on many circumstances including:
- Tiredness level.
- Blood sugar levels.
- Environment e.g. school or home.
- Adults on hand to co-regulate.
Do your best to remind yourself that at times your child can’t manage their emotions, rather than chooses not to.
Zones of Regulation Activities
Zones of Regulation helps make emotions more concrete and visual through a colours system.
This approach is used widely in schools and can also be applied at home.
Its purpose is to help children identify their feelings and levels of alertness/arousal.
Sometimes, emotions feel all over the place. Categorising and identifying can help your child have better control over them and acceptance of them.
The Red Zone describes extremely heightened states of alertness and intense emotions. Your child may be elated or experiencing anger, rage, devastation, or terror when in the Red Zone.
The Yellow Zone is also used to describe a heightened state of alertness and elevated emotions. The main difference is that a child has more control when they are in the Yellow Zone. Yellow Zone emotions might be stress, frustration, anxiety, excitement, silliness, “the wiggles” or nervousness.
The Green Zone describes a calm state of alertness. A person may be described as happy, focused, content, or ready to learn when in the Green Zone. This is the ideal zone for learning and following instructions.
The Blue Zone is used to describe low alertness and down feelings such as sadness, tiredness, lethargy and boredom.
It can be so helpful for your child to learn to verbalise, “I am in the Yellow Zone but I want to be in the Green Zone”, for example.
They can then spot what kinds of activities help them move from one zone to another.
Nurture and Replenishment: Essential Ingredients for Emotion Regulation in Children
It might seem obvious, but healthy sleep patterns, a balanced diet and regular exercise are essential for successful self-regulation in children.
A healthy lifestyle gives the brain and body the best chance to deal with big emotions in a responsive and positive manner.
Focus on making small concrete changes such as going to bed half an hour earlier.
Make only one change at a time to avoid overwhelm.
Emotional Regulation Activities for Kids: Summary
Developing emotional regulation skills is a “journey” which continues into adulthood.
The ability to manage big emotions successfully depends on many factors including a child’s environment.
Specific emotional regulation activities for kids like those I have recommended can boost vital skills.
The more they practise self-regulation, the easier it becomes for young people to adapt to changes, transitions and challenges in their lives.
Resources For Parents About Emotional Regulation in Children
Self-Regulation and Mindfulness by Varleisha Gibbs
Keeping Your Cool – a pdf guide for parents on managing stress and anger
End Emotional Outbursts – A short course by They Are The Future for parents of 7-13s
Hayley Vaughan Smith is a Person Centred Counsellor accredited by the National Counselling Society. She is the founder and counsellor at The Ridge Practice in Buckinghamshire, and Counsellor at Everlief Child Psychology.
Hayley has a special interest in bereavement counselling and has worked as a bereavement volunteer with Cruse Bereavement Care since 2019. Being a mum to 3 girls is hard work and rewarding in equal measure and gardening and walking in nature is her own personal therapy – Hayley believes being in nature, whatever the weather, is incredibly beneficial for mental health well-being.
Join They Are The Future’s free Facebook group for regular tips and great ideas to support teens and pre-teens with their mental health! Join the group: Parent Tips for Positive Child Mental Health UK.