Have you ever struggled through a tough day at work, dealing with crisis after crisis, keeping a lid on your anger, sadness, and fear … only to ‘lose it’ by yelling and sobbing uncontrollably once you get into your car?
If so, then you’re not alone. You’re only human, so you know how it feels to reach the limit of your capacity for emotional self-management.
Emotional regulation is the ability to manage one’s own feelings. It indicates self-control and self-command, and it’s a vital component of personal growth.
As such, these self-control skills affect all areas of life, from education to social interactions. If your child cannot manage his own emotions, he’ll have a tough time learning at school, and experience difficulty making and keeping friends.
So how can you equip your child with these essential skills? If you’re wondering what to do next to facilitate your child’s development, look no further.
We understand that you’ve got a full plate and a busy schedule, so here’s a crash-course in supporting your child’s emotional development.
1. Learn to recognize emotional states
First, practice emotions labeling with your child, because the ability to identify one’s own emotional state is a basic component of self-management.
As we noted in our blog post, 3 emotional regulation skills that you can practice anywhere, “The ability to recognize emotional states is a key to self-regulation. After all, if a child can’t accurately identify their own emotions, they’ll have tremendous difficulty communicating their feelings to others.”
Given the importance of this practice, you’ll want to weave it into the fabric of your days.
For example, you might want to start a ritual of taking pause during car rides or meals to ask your child to name their emotional state.
An ABA therapist can help in this effort. The clinician in the FirstPath Autism video lesson “Emotions Labeling” on our Home pagedemonstrates multiple techniques for learning emotional states.
At first, the child picks out a card representing a given emotion from between two possible cards. As the lesson goes on, the level of difficulty increases; he’s asked to name the emotion on each card independently.
In one such dialogue, the therapist shows a photograph of a yawning woman and asks, “How does she feel?” The child responds with the correct answer and a relevant suggestion too: “Tired … she needs to take a nap in her bed!”
Finally, the therapist prompts the child to display varying emotional states on his own face. (“Show me … happy!”) The child makes the appropriate facial expression, thus connecting a descriptive term to a physical sensation.
2. Prevent panic and promote stillness
What else can you do to teach your child emotional self-management? You can help to prevent fight-or-flight responses, and coach your child to calm his or her own body when panic does arise.
Sometimes, you can stop a sensory-overload experience before it starts simply by carrying noise-canceling headphones and sunglasses everywhere you go.
Of course, it isn’t always that simple. Try as you might, you can’t always predict how your child will react in a given situation.
As a case in point, children with sensory processing disorder experience varying levels of tolerance to stimuli. One day the usual level of classroom noise isn’t a problem, and the next day, it is.
Given this, it’s important to empower your child to de-escalate their own physical response to stress. Deep breathing and counting slowly to ten work for many people, as do yoga stretches and breathing exercises.
In fact, early research indicates that a regular yoga practice can be extremely beneficial for individuals with autism.
As Kristie Patten Koenig says in the 2012 NPR article, Classroom Yoga Helps Improve Behavior of Kids with Autism,
“‘We know that anxiety fuels a lot of the negative [classroom] behavior, so the yoga program gives them a strategy to cope with it.’”
A simple 17-minute routine of breathing, poses, and muscle tensing and relaxation gave students on the spectrum an opportunity to self-manage their bodies and emotions at the start of the school day, and their behavior benefitted from it.
In addition to yoga techniques, you can also use adaptive equipment to provide calming pressure if desired by your child. Our blog post What we can learn about autism and emotional regulation from Temple Grandinoffers a few suggestions:
“Individuals with autism use hug machines, weighted blankets, rugs, and other customized furniture to provide safe, self-soothing pressure …. Experiment and see what kind of calming techniques work for your loved one.”
3. Offer gradated opportunities for greater independence
One often-overlooked way to support your child’s emotional regulation skills is for you to allow them to separate from you in an age-appropriate fashion.
Many times, children with autism feel frustrated because their desire for self-determination conflicts with their need for support and when parents don’t allow their children opportunities to develop independent living skills, that frustration turns into anger and learned helplessness.
As such, it’s up to you to identify (and allow!) some calculated risks for your child. Ask your child what they’d like to learn how to do “without Mom or Dad’s help”.
As you’re moving through your daily routine, look for evidence that your child wants to do certain tasks independently.
Does your child tend to push your hands away when you go to tie his shoes? That may be an indication that he wants to learn how to tie them himself. Does your daughter resist when you attempt to brush her hair? She might prefer to do it without help.
Once you have your list, break down each task into steps. What would it take for your child to get from dependence to independence?
For example, say your child wants to learn how to brush her own teeth. At first, you’ll need to practice hand-over-hand toothbrushing, guiding the application of toothpaste, the back and forth and up and down motions, and so forth.
Once you see that she’s mastered these discrete skills, you can step back and can encourage independent toothbrushing. You’ll work in a quick ‘quality check’ at first, but you can phase this out once you’re satisfied that your child has mastered the skill.
4. Get support for yourself too!
Finally, know that an ABA clinician can be an invaluable asset in this area. ABA therapists are trained to break down large, complex tasks into smaller, more manageable pieces, as shown in our videos!