Occupational Therapy

Emotional Regulation

What is emotional regulation?

Emotional regulation, also known as self-regulation is the ability to regulate or adjust our response to changes in situations or environments around us. These responses include: 

  • Arousal (are they awake and alert or do they look like they are about to fall asleep?) 
  • Emotions (are they happy, sad, anxious, annoyed, fearful, angry, frustrated…)
  • Attention (are they engaged or having difficulties concentrating?)
  • Organization (are they having difficulties putting their thoughts or actions in an order that makes sense?) 
  • Behaviors (are their actions expected or unexpected given the situation?)

A child’s ability to regulate their emotions can have an impact on their social relationships (i.e., friends, family, peers), their mental state, their academic performance and their capacity to thrive in real-life situations. When a child is “dysregulated”, it means that their responses are not what is expected given their age and the situation. For example, a child who is running around the classroom while his peers are sitting quietly for story time, or a child who hits in response to a light touch on the shoulder may be considered dysregulated. As children grow, they learn to develop or master these emotional regulation skills. 

What is co-regulation?

As social beings, our regulation can be significantly influenced by those around us. This is called “co-regulation”. Before a child learns to “self-regulate”, they rely heavily on the adults around them to help them co-regulate, by recognizing and responding to their needs, modeling appropriate responses, supporting them through difficult situations or providing them with soothing sensory experiences (i.e., rocking a baby while singing softly). As the nervous system matures, children gradually learn more self-regulation strategies. Occupational therapists work with children and their families to help them develop co-regulation and self-regulation strategies that promote participation in both the family’s and the child’s occupations.

Who can help my child regulate their emotions? 

When a child has difficulty with managing their emotions across different settings and/or periods of time, it would be beneficial to reach out to one of our occupational therapists. The primary goal of an occupational therapist is to help people to better participate in the activities they need and want to do in their daily lives (i.e., their “occupations”). For children, this includes playing, making friends, doing school related activities, sleeping, helping around the house and doing self-care activities such as getting dressed and using the toilet. A dysregulated nervous system can make it very difficult for a child to participate in many of these occupations. Therefore, before or in addition to working on specific activities, occupational therapists often engage children in certain types of play, movements and sensory experiences aimed at regulating the nervous system so the child can access their upstairs brain for better learning. 

What are signs your child could benefit from an occupational therapist?

  • Tearfulness
  • Angry outbursts
  • Behavioral outbursts (i.e., throwing, aggression towards self or others) 
  • Withdrawal 
  • Refusal to speak 
  • High levels of anxiety
  • Inability to be flexible 
  • Difficulty calming down when upset 
  • Impulsivity 
  • Difficulty with attention 

In a nutshell

Here are a few ways an occupational therapist can help:

  • Create a sensory toolbox
  • Identifying triggers to manage their stressors and behaviours
  • Building awareness of the emotions or arousal level
  • Integrating reflexes
  • Using collaborative problem solving approach