Emotional Regulation and Anxiety in Children

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Areas of Emotional Regulation

Emotional regulation is a term generally used to describe a person’s ability to effectively manage their feelings.

Ross Greene, author of the Explosive child defines the primary areas children who have emotional regulation difficulties in as those of:

  • Low frustration tolerance
  • Reactivity
  • Rigidity
  • Difficulties with Self Soothing

These children also experience great distress when  physically uncomfortable if they are experiencing disruption in  temperature, fatigue, hunger, or sensory issues such as too much light or sound. Children with emotional regulation issues generally feel overwhelmed by the day to day issues of life.

A subset of children who have anxiety also have difficulties with emotional regulation. So  do some children who have mood disorders, autism, ADHD, learning disabilities, trauma or obsessive compulsive disorder (ocd).


Family Issues

Families who deal with the challenges of children with emotional regulation issues are completely overwhelmed trying to manage their behaviors. Parents are exhausted from trying to keep their children happy, dealing with meltdowns and rages, sibling quarrels, outbursts, fights, and constant control battles. Depending on the level of severity of the child's difficulties, families may even be concerned for the safety of their child or other children in the home, or simply worn down with shame, exhaustion, and guilt. If OCD or another anxiety disorder, the emotional regulation may get better with treatment specific for the anxiety, or it may not. There are however, ways to help yourself, and your children learn how to help themselves with issues with emotional regulation.

Therapy Issues

Therapy can help you understand what situations are making your child more emotionally dysregulated. For example, many kids have trouble with emotional regulation when they haven't slept, when they are in transition, or in response to something in their environment. Most families are unclear on what these issues are, as are the children themselves. Playing detective and learning what these issues are can help restore a sense of control to your life. Therapy can help teach kids and families how to recognize the roles they each play particularly cycles that are unhealthy and how to change those roles.

  Therapy can help children:

  • learn skills of exposing themselves to discomfort
  • accept difficult feelings and thoughts
  • tolerate distress

These issues are at the root of their emotional regulation problems.


Child Issues

Know your feelings

When a child is struggling with emotional regulation he often needs to learn first how to identify his feelings. In therapy kids can be taught to notice feelings in their body and how the tone of their voice and body language can give off clues about what they might be feeling. Parents and other family members can help with this process. Knowing what you are feeling is often the first step to managing and tolerating what you're feeling

Tolerate your feelings

Children are taught to stay with the anxious feeling, rather than escape it. Attempts to escape the anxiety include blaming others, or trying to avoid it by escaping or engaging parents in changing their behavior when things are uncomfortable. This is especially common in kids with OCD. Therapy involves learning to stay with anxious feelings and sensations and learning that they will pass.

Talk about the incidents

Goals of therapy also include learning to tolerate distress and discomfort by discussing incidents that children might not want to discuss. Children and parents often don't want to discuss incidents once they have happened because it is not fun to bring up uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, but this is how we find solutions.

Using cognitive behavioral therapy

Eventually in therapy kids can be taught to identify their thoughts and understand how the thoughts might be unhelpful and driving an unhelpful cycle, and how the sensations in their body are connected to their thoughts, feelings, and behavior. They can be taught to modify these thoughts with different thoughts that break the intensity of the cycle. Additionally, parents can aid using visual cues to help with this cycle if they become upset or angry.

Using mindfulness techniques

Kids can be taught to decrease the focus on their thoughts and their physical discomfort and instead learn to focus on accepting discomfort and to diffuse from their experience.

Parent Issues

Shame

You are not to blame for your child's issues, even if your child is perfect in other settings. Sometimes children can be emotionally dysregulated only with you because they work hard in other settings and are exhausted from trying when they get home. Find a professional who doesn't judge you

Safety

Safety must be paramount in your home. If there are issues of sibling conflict or constant conflict between you and your child, they must be decreased first. Ask the professional to address this with a specific safety plan. 

Pick your battles 

Pick your battles with your child. Punishment for not staying emotional regulated doesn't work, this is not a deliberate thing. You can have boundaries around what is acceptable if you become dysregulated when your child says certain things or if your find it unacceptable. For example, "You cannot say I will kill you" instead say " I am so angry I could scream". Or "You cannot say I will kill you" lets come up with something different. 

When you see your child  becoming dysregulated give him or her permission  to go to their safe place to disengage. This plan should be structured and have clear boundaries and expectations. It can be in the form of a safety plan you come up with in therapy. 

When you see your child very emotionally upset intervene by asking your child " What do you need? I will try to see what I can do to make me a little happy and you a little happy "

Medicine?

If your child has anxiety, adhd, depression or a mood disorder they need to  be on the correct and appropriate dose for their medicine and in therapy for this diagnosis and the right therapy indicated before medication for emotional regulation issues is attempted. 


 Siqueland, L PhD, and  Eken,S MD (September 2015,16).Emotional Regulation Difficulties in Children & Adolescents: What the Heck Do I Do?[Webinar]. In ADAA Professional WebinarRetrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watchv=f3nmXVMl5Q8&feature=youtu.be

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