Examining Emotional Regulation in Children and Youth

Have you ever had witnessed the reaction of a toddler whose toy is taken from them? Or who is denied something that they want? Or whose caregiver leaves the room right when they wanted a hug? While each child is different, it is likely that the reaction will involve tears, screaming, and perhaps sprawling on the floor, kicking up a storm. Ah, the toddler years! Very young children typically wear their hearts on their sleeves in profound ways, and express their emotions with abandon. Their sadness, anger and frustration – as well as their joy and their delight – know no bounds. These little humans live in a world of emotional extremes. Over time, as we grow, most of us learn to manage our emotions in more effective ways – to understand how we are feeling, to put our feelings in perspective, and to reduce the intensity of emotional reactions when necessary. But there are many youth who – for a variety of reasons – may not have learned to self-regulate in this way, and continue to experience their emotions in unmanageable extremes. Think of the 15 year old boy who can’t answer a question when called upon in class, is called ‘dumb’ by a classmate, and reacts by slamming his desk, yelling, or storming out of the room. Or the girl whose friend tells one of her secrets behind her back, and her embarrassment or sense of betrayal leads her to isolate and avoid school for a prolonged period of time. In both of these situations, the youth has had a strong emotional reaction, and has not been able to effectively manage that reaction, such that it is now impacting their functioning. They are struggling with Emotional Regulation.

Emotional Regulation and Dysregulation

The keys to emotional regulation are the abilities to identify, understand, and effectively respond to our emotional experiences. These skills are increasingly recognized as being associated with positive mental and emotional health in children and adolescents. When a youth is not able to use healthy and effective strategies to manage their emotions, this is often referred to as being emotionally dysregulated. Emotional dysregulation has been linked to depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders (Berking & Whitley, 2014). As in the examples above, when emotions are too big, or too overwhelming, for a youth, it may lead outbursts, aggression, confrontation, or isolation. Emotional dysregulation many also lead youth to seek out unhealthy strategies to quell their overwhelming emotions, such as drugs & alcohol, or self-injury.

A child or youth’s ability to express and regulate their emotions effectively is thought to be influenced by both biological and environmental factors:

Hereditary or biological predisposition: We eachcome into the world with different temperaments and ways that we respond to situations. Some individuals naturally feel emotions more intensely, or react to situations with more intensity, than others. This natural disposition towards greater intensity of emotion can make regulation more of an uphill battle for some youth.

Models of emotional dysregulation: As with most issues, there is a nature/nurture component to emotional regulation. How a child learns to manage their emotions is strongly tied to how they have witnessed the expression and regulation of emotions in their parents or other significant individuals around them.  Unfortunately, many children have not experienced positive, healthy or effective models of emotional regulation. 

Trauma: Youth who have experienced trauma often tend to present with emotional extremes – they either feel too much (sense of being overwhelmed), or too little (a sense of numbness or nothingness).  The intensity of these emotional experiences can make them more difficult to manage, and is a reason that many youth who have experienced trauma may turn to the unhealthy coping strategies identified earlier.  

How to help youth learn emotional regulation

While it may seem to youth as though intense emotions are instinctive and devoid of any thinking or reasoning, in fact our emotions are intricately tied to the cognitive processes that accompany them – even if we are not consciously aware of those cognitive processes.  Below is a practical way that we can conceptualize the connection between situations, thoughts, emotions and behaviour:

Figure from: www.online-therapy.com/cbt

Theraputic modalities such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, and Dialectical Behaviour Therapy are rooted in an understanding of the relationship between our thoughts, emotions and behaviour. When specifically addressing Emotional Regulation, we want to help youth to gain a better understanding of what their emotions are, as well as the thoughts that are accompanying them, in order to find healthier and more effective ways of managing them. Intervening at any point in the cycle can lead to more positive emotional experiences, as well as greater control over one’s emotional responses.

Mindfulness: Previous issues of this magazine have discussed both the benefits of Mindfulness, and methods of practicing and teaching mindfulness in various settings. Mindfulness is the act of being focused and aware of our thoughts, feelings and sensations in the present moment, without judging them or trying to change them. Mindfulness programs are increasingly being brought into both elementary and high schools, and are relatively easy to implement. Mindfulness can help children and youth become aware of how they are feeling (and how to not run away from those feelings) which then forms the foundation for getting those feelings under control.

Emotional Awareness:  Have you ever asked a youth how they are feeling, and had them genuinely respond “I don’t know”? When we work with much younger children, we expect that they will have limited language or understanding of the range of emotions that they might be feeling.  A multitude of books, games, posters, and other activities have been created to support children in identifying emotional experiences.  But it is important to recognize that many children reach adolescence and still lack this language or understanding, and it can be that more overwhelming as the range of emotions felt in adolescence can be quite complex. Are they feeling anger? Hurt? Betrayal? Jealousy? Embarrassment? Excitement? Anxiety? It is very difficult to get control over your emotions if you don’t even know what they are.  By teaching youth to identify what they are feeling, they can gain the ability to talk themselves through their emotional experience, as well as understand where it may have come from. 

Cognitive Strategies: As noted above, our emotions are generally reactions to thoughts that we are having about a situation, even though we are often unaware of what those thoughts are.  Once a youth is able to identify what they are feeling, help them to talk through what situation led to their feelings, and what thoughts they are having about the situation. Our thoughts can be very unhelpful at times, and be full of assumptions and negative self-talk. By changing some of those thoughts, or framing situations in a more neutral light, youth can decrease the intensity of what they are feeling. As well, once a youth has become mindfully aware of their emotions, and can think through why they are feeling what they are, they may be in a better (and less impulsive) state to decide how they will respond. 

Relaxation: While Mindfulness teaches us to be aware of how we are feeling without trying to change it, there is also a role for relaxation strategies in Emotional Regulation.  Intense emotional reactions often come with physiological symptoms (e.g., racing heart, shortness of breath, tense muscles, etc.).  It can be helpful to teach youth ways that they can relax their body and get control over these physical symptoms, which can then lead to an increased ability to engage in a thinking process. 

Behavioural strategies: As discussed above, in the absence of healthy coping strategies, youth may turn to less helpful or healthy strategies (self-harm, drugs, alcohol) to cope with how they are feeling.  While emotional awareness and cognitive strategies are integral to a youth’s long-term ability to regulate their emotions, sometimes what is needed in the moment is just for them to DO something different. Dialectical Behaviour Therapy teaches a skill called “Opposite Action”, which is essentially the practice of doing the very opposite of what you feel like doing in the moment. If your feelings are leading you to isolate yourself – call someone or go for a walk.  If your feelings are leading you to be aggressive or violent towards someone – walk away and do a kind act for someone else.  This is rooted in the idea that sometimes our emotions will catch up with our actions.  It can give a youth a concrete sense that they can in fact have influence or control over how they are feeling, instead of believing that their emotions are in control of them.    Finally, the value of healthy living strategies (getting adequate sleep, eating well, getting exercise, socializing with positive friends) cannot be underestimated in the context of managing emotions.  These things will not change the stressors in a youth’s life, nor will they change the thoughts or emotions associated with them.  However, healthy life habits can make a youth more resilient in the face of stressors or difficult emotions, and give them at least one step towards a sense of emotional balance.  

By: Laura Hamilton

Berking. M., & Whitley, B. (2014). Emotion regulation: Definition and relevance for mental health. Affect regulation training: A practioners’ manual (pp. 5-17). New York, NY: Springer Science.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2014). Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services. Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series 57.Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.