the importance of emotional regulation for kids with autism and sensory challenges

Identifying emotions is hard. There’s no reason to beat around the large, overgrown bush and deny otherwise. For anyone, regardless of an autism or SPD diagnosis, identifying emotions proves to be a challenge with a questionable end. How many times have we snapped at a spouse because the house is a mess when we’re really just upset because we’re hungry and in need of a cup of coffee? Think about how we could have avoided that little spat if we had recognized our feelings of hunger and exhaustion earlier. In many ways, knowing how to identify our emotions makes life easier through the number of misunderstandings, miscommunications, and misdirections we can avoid. But, learning how to identify emotions is by no means an easy skill to master.

Putting your own emotional identification abilities aside, why is this an important skill to teach your child? Sensory issues are challenging in that meltdowns are often triggered by common objects or occurrences. While many of us show frustration when in traffic, our children with sensory issues may show the same response to a crowded grocery store or shirt tags. As a parent, this makes life hard. Especially when a diagnosis is new, it can feel impossible to figure out what is causing your child’s behavior. Is it the sounds, smells, sights, or textures? Is it all of the above? How are you supposed to make sense of any of it?

Teaching your child emotional regulation will go a long way in combatting meltdowns before they happen. While a crowded grocery store may still cause anxiety, your child will be able to alert you to their anxiety so that you both can handle it before it turns into a meltdown.

So, how do you teach your child emotional regulation?

The Zones of Regulation

The Zones of Regulation are well known in the childhood emotional regulation space. And for good reason. I once taught a 3-month preschool course that had the Zones of Regulation at its core and it was a very practical, effective, and easy to use method to start the emotional regulation conversation.

Designed by an Occupational Therapist, The Zones of Regulation are used with kids of all ages to simplify the emotion identification process. Within this method, emotions are divided into four category colors. Red is used to describe intense states of emotion such as anger. Yellow, while also describing heightened states of emotion, is a step below red and encompasses emotions such as stress or anxiety. Green is the emotional sweet spot. Green describes emotions of happiness and openness to new experiences. Blue is the final category and describes emotions of sadness, tiredness, and other lower emotional states.

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Attaching emotions to colors is useful in that children need not describe their emotions in words. Describing emotions in words is hard for even the most eloquent of us, let alone children on the verge of meltdown. After practicing with The Zones of Regulation, children become adept at recognizing the “colors they feel” before it’s too late to alert you to a problem. While the use of only 4 colors to describe all the emotions your child may feel sounds too simplified, it’s a great introduction to emotions. As your children age, you can later expound on these principles and delve into the more complicated aspects of emotional identification. This is a fantastic way to start though.

In addition, this method makes emotional communication much easier. Instead of ambiguously telling your child to calm down, you can say that you want them to transition from a yellow to a green space. This is also useful in that you can attach colors to activities. School is a green activity; bedtime is a blue activity; going to the grocery store is a yellow activity that you’re striving to make a green activity. Preparing your child for the emotional state they need to be in for a certain activity prior to engaging in it can go a long way in preventing the anxiety that comes with preparing for new experiences.

The Zones of Regulation program has an informative book and website. Be aware that the book is written for OTs and other medical professionals looking to implement the program. It’s easy to read though, so don’t let that intimidate you. Note that there are affiliate links that will lead you to Amazon for your convenience.

BE SURE TO PRACTICE IDENTIFYING EMOTIONS

Social situations are the best teachers of emotional regulation. Not only can children learn about their own emotions, they can also learn about the emotions of others. Teaching children to identify the emotions of others can help them to foster empathy skills and emotional intelligence. This allows children to understand why others are behaving the way that they are and use that data to influence their own thoughts and behaviors.

Needless to say, our children with autism or sensory issues often struggle with empathy and become anxious in social situations. While there’s no need for them to be social butterflies, it’s a practical expectation that they won’t have meltdowns every time we run into neighbors at the park. While this skill reaches beyond emotional regulation, social situations are valuable in their abilities to teach us about the feelings of ourselves and others. With every social situation comes a chance to confront the feelings that come along with it. As you process those feelings with your child, you can reassure them that they are safe and that their feelings are manageable. With practice, your child will be more adept at handling their emotions and feel more competent at handling spontaneous social situations. While our children are born with certain temperaments, . This benefits both their emotional regulation skills and their social skills so that the thought of leaving the house isn’t anxiety producing.

In addition to building empathy skills, discussing the emotions of others can help you discuss emotions with your child without the spotlight being on them. It can be tricky to bring up situations in which your child acted in a way that was less than ideal. Instead of being a discussion about emotional identification, this can turn into an argument in which your child feels like they disappointed you. Using the experiences of others as anecdotes, you can teach children about appropriate methods for expressing their emotions without highlighting their own flaws. Try to get in the habit of talking through the emotional side of social interactions after they happen. The more your child practices emotional regulation, the better they will become at it. 

Needless to say, our children with autism or sensory issues often struggle with empathy and become anxious in social situations. While there’s no need for them to be social butterflies, it’s a practical expectation that they won’t have meltdowns every time we run into neighbors at the park. While this skill reaches beyond emotional regulation, social situations are valuable in their abilities to teach us about the feelings of ourselves and others. With every social situation comes a chance to confront the feelings that come along with it. As you process those feelings with your child, you can reassure them that they are safe and that their feelings are manageable. With practice, your child will be more adept at handling their emotions and feel more competent at handling spontaneous social situations. While our children are born with certain temperaments, they can learn how to handle situations they are uncomfortable with. This benefits both their emotional regulation skills and their social skills so that the thought of leaving the house isn’t anxiety producing.

Using Mindfulness for emotional regulation

Mindfulness is trendy right now. And for good reason, in my opinion. While meditation is commonly connected to mindfulness, it doesn’t have to be. Mindfulness is simply about recognizing what is happening inside and outside of us. When we’re being mindful, we’re more aware that the noisy coffee shop is making us feel anxious, that the hot sun is making us feel tired, or that the thought of visiting friends over the weekend is making us feel excited. Mindfulness is about observation for the sake of behavior change. If I notice my feelings of anxiety, I can take action to control them or change the situation that is causing them.

While meditation isn’t required for developing skills in mindfulness, it can help. Meditators often say that meditation can help to expand the distance between feelings and actions. In essence, it helps shift reactivity into conscientious action. For example, if I feel angry because someone cut me off on the highway, I will find myself noticing my anger and taking a beat before laying on my horn. Meditation helps us learn to slow down and take note of our emotions before taking action on them.

As would be expected, teaching children to meditate takes some patience. Many adults, myself included, struggle to meditate on a regular basis and find it to be a hard thing to do regularly. Be sure to take it slowly with your child and appreciate that it may never be perfect. Nor does it need to be! Simply introducing your child to the principles of meditation and mindfulness can go a long way in developing skills in reducing reactive behaviors.

I know that teaching mindfulness to your children can be intimidating, so here are some great resources to get you started.

create an open and welcoming space to discuss emotions

If every conversation regarding emotions consists of criticisms and complaints of what your child has done wrong, your child will be less likely to open up about what they are feeling. While consequences are necessary for inappropriate behavior, try to only punish the behavior, not the feeling. While throwing the cereal box is an inappropriate behavior, feeling anger is not. Children should never be ashamed of feeling their emotions. Instead, they need to learn that, while their emotions are normal and valid, they need to express them in appropriate ways. When discussing your child’s emotions, always have it be a warm and accepting environment.

While it’s good to talk about emotional situations soon after they happen, be sure that you are in a good mental space to do so. For example, if you’re upset that your child had a tantrum at soccer practice, wait until you have calmed down and are ready to talk with your child about the situation in a productive way.

What are your experiences with teaching your child emotional regulation?

If you're looking for more on this topic, here are some great books and games that can guide you as you tackle emotional regulation with your child.

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About the Author

Diana Fitts is an Occupational Therapist who specializes in sensory processing disorders.