As adults, we’re expected to keep our emotions under control. (Something that is unfortunately especially true for adult women, but that’s a complaint for another day.) Even though we may want to Hulk-smash through a wall when we feel angry or sad, we know that’s not an option. But this isn’t something we’re born understanding — it’s something we have to learn. It’s called “emotional regulation,” and it’s a skill (much like coping or self-regulation).
If you’re not familiar with the term, emotional regulation refers to a person’s ability to control their feelings, ensuring that their behavior remains appropriate and productive. In other words: no Hulk-smashing. Boooo, we know. It seems like life would be easier if we could let our inner Bruce Banner out when something is bothering us. Alas, we all have to accept at some point that having radioactive meltdowns isn’t exactly acceptable behavior.
Best Emotional Regulation Activities and Skills
If this is something you need or want to work on with your kids, well, join the club. Fortunately, there are a few emotional regulation activities that can help them develop the skills they need to harness their feelings. Bonus: You might pick up a few handy new techniques in the process, too.
1. Emotion Charades
This is exactly what it sounds like: having kids act out different emotions, while the rest of the group (or just you, depending on who is around) tries to guess the feeling. Remind the child participants that they aren’t allowed to use their words during a game of charades, but they are encouraged to use different facial expressions and body language to help other people guess the feeling they’ve been assigned.
2. Body Scan
Encourage kiddos to slow down and regroup through a full-body scan. Have them lay down, close their eyes, and focus on everything they are feeling in their body, as well as any emotions they are feeling at the time. Neutralizing their physical environment can help them focus on their emotions.
3. The HALTED Strategy
Teach kids the HALTED strategy as a way to help them figure out what is making them upset. Of course, this works best with older children who know how to spell, but the general idea is to use the acronym HALTED to check-in with yourself.
Are you feeling…
H – Hungry?
A – Angry?
L – Lonely?
T – Tired?
E – Embarrassed?
D – Disappointed?
4. Dragon Breathing
Getting kids excited about breathing may be a challenge — unless you’re talking about dragon breathing (everything involving dragons is cool). Not only does this technique help children relieve anxiety and tension, but the long exhale can trigger a relaxation response. You can follow along with the video below:
5. The Feelings Volcano
What’s better than a feelings chart for toddlers or other kids? One that involves a volcano. This free, downloadable graphic helps kids identify and deal with their most explosive feelings.
6. Robot Flashcards
Although robots aren’t known for their emotions, these flashcards can teach important emotional regulation skills. In addition to helping kids identify and name their own feelings, these free, downloadable flashcards will also assist them in understanding other people’s feelings and becoming more empathetic.
7. Visit Sesame Street
It’s no surprise that Sesame Street has tackled emotional regulation skills over the years. But with thousands of videos, where do you even start? The answer is this YouTube Sesame Street playlist featuring characters helping each other identify and discuss their emotions.
8. Happy Days Chart
Sadly, this activity doesn’t involve the Fonz, but it’s another one that includes our friends at Sesame Street. This free, downloadable chart allows kids to keep track of things during the week that make them happy, including sharing something with a friend, playing with a friend, or saying hello to someone.
9. Mood Meter
Draw several faces with different emotions on a chart. When your child feels excited or disappointed, encourage them to stick their name tag on the face they are feeling. This pushes them to recognize and express their emotions. This is like the “Happy Chart,” but mood meters are a daily activity that focuses on a range of feelings. The goal is to help children communicate the emotions they aren’t sure how to express.
10. Mirror Time
Sometimes the person your child needs to talk to the most is themself. Give your kid a child-safe hand mirror or encourage them to use a mirror in their room. When they’re angry or sad, mirror time allows them to reconnect with themselves and be more present in a situation. Sometimes your child just needs to see what you’re seeing, which can help them reflect (no pun intended) on their feelings.
What causes poor emotional regulation?
During the early years of your child’s life, it’s important to create a healthy and emotionally supportive space to avoid emotional dysregulation. Children who experience early trauma, brain injury, child abuse, or post-traumatic stress are more prone to poor emotional regulation. This skill is important because it allows your kid to manage their feelings and understand other people’s emotions. This will help your child function and interact with others in a healthy way.
What are symptoms of emotional dysregulation?
When someone struggles with regulating their emotions, it comes forth in several ways. Their behavior is usually seen as aggressive or offensive. A few common signs include:
- Lack of accountability or a tendency to blame others instead of finding a solution
- Taking part in arguments that have no end
- Self-harm or engaging in other abusive behavior
- Attempting to control the relationships of others