Emotional regulation. Sometimes our feelings can get a little tricky. Mostly, we can experience an emotion and get on with our life. But sometimes, an emotion can be so strong that we feel overwhelmed. This is the sense of a feeling being ‘too much’. Talking about positive and negative emotions can be misleading. Too much happiness, becoming over- excited, can have negative consequences. Likewise, sadness and other so-called negative feelings, can be necessary, alerting us to what is going on. There is nothing wrong or bad about any feeling. But problems can arise when emotions get too much and overwhelm us.
Emotional regulation is the ability to manage our feelings. For many of us, most of the time, our feelings are fine. Whether happy, sad or another emotion, we can feel it without thinking too much about what to do. But sometimes, we need some tricks to actively manage our emotions. This applies whether we see the emotion as ‘positive’ or ‘negative’. Emotional management or regulation is not about getting rid of emotions. We all have feelings and many different types of them. This is normal.
Pushing emotions away or denying them is not healthy. Dealing with them appropriately is.
If an emotion is overwhelming, we can find it challenging to get on with our lives. Most of us have probably had times when we have felt so down or so angry that we found it hard to think. Strong feelings can also affect how we get on with other people too. When we are feeling down, we may not feel like being with other people. Strong feelings of anger can lead us to react defensively and perhaps overreact to what other people do or say.
Inside and Outside
Our feelings often arise in response to something that is happening around us. This may be when we are experiencing a problem. If something doesn’t go our way, we may get angry or sad. If someone does something nice for us, we may feel happy. But emotions can also be influenced by our own thoughts and behaviours. If I think I am a terrible person, this may lead me to feel down or depressed. Similarly, what we do can
have a big effect on how we feel. Doing something nice such as cooking a favourite meal or going for a walk gives us a positive feeling and reinforces positive thoughts about ourselves. Doing something nice for yourself tells you you are worth it.
We can think of it like a person going on a journey by following a map. Everything is fine until they realise that they are not where they want to be. Something has gone wrong. This may make them feel upset. The solution is to look at the map, figure out where they are, and then find a route to where they want to be. But, and this is a very simple example, imagine they are so upset, they are crying a lot. The tears in their eyes will make it very hard for them to read the map correctly. If we can’t read the map, then we can’t see where we are, and we won’t be able to get to where we want to be. Strong feelings can blind us to what is really going on.
Life Skills and Development
So learning to manage and deal with our emotions is an essential skill for life. It is not something we are born with, so we must all learn how to do it. We get better at it the more we do it. It is often something that children struggle with, mainly because they haven’t had much practice. But they will get better at it as they get older and have more experience. And this is where you can help. Teaching children the skills they need to effectively manage their emotions will help their development and help them feel more in control of their lives.
You have a big role to play in this. Learning things by yourself is hard. We can do it, but we will often make a lot of mistakes. Having someone there to help us and guide us not only cuts down on the number of wrong turns we will make, but being encouraged and supported is also important for learning. Learning to manage our emotions is not about always handling things on our own. Nor is it about always getting things right. Sharing with someone who cares about us how we are feeling is a very effective way of dealing with strong emotions. And the feedback they give us can help us to learn.
The first step towards managing emotions is being able to recognise them. This is particularly important for young children who don’t have much experience with their feelings. Children often know that they feel something and that it is nice or not, but they may struggle to tell you what that feeling is or recognise the subtle differences between feelings.
It can be very useful to be able to differentiate between emotions. We all know that happiness is different to sadness. But what about all the things between and beyond those feelings? Bittersweet is one example that shows us feelings can be a real mixture and quite complicated. There are also different scales of emotions. For instance, we can be slightly annoyed, irritated, upset, angry, or in a rage. We can see that these feelings are pretty similar, but the intensity of them changes.
Words and Communication
Knowing the right words to use can help us to see the difference between feelings. It can also allow us to feel that the emotion is knowable and something we can deal with. Feeling something that we are unsure about can itself be upsetting. Naming something is often the first step to dealing with it. And this brings us to another important aspect. Naming feelings helps us to communicate them to others. Saying that we feel anxious is a lot easier than having to describe all the knots in our stomach, the sickly feeling, and the thoughts racing through our minds.
Empathy and Alignment
Everybody has their own way of feeling. I won’t feel anger in quite the same way that you do. But using similar words helps us to tell others how we are and to understand them in turn. Using similar language can also help us to connect with others. This is one aspect of empathy. When I say I feel sad, you may feel a little sad too. But more than that. You will recognise what that feels like and be able to respond appropriately.
Toolbox of Techniques
There is a range of ways of dealing with emotions. Some ways work for one person, some better for another. And different techniques may be better for different feelings. If we are angry, we may want something that will help us to calm down. But we wouldn’t want the same effect if we were feeling sad. Building up a toolbox of techniques useful in a variety of situations is a good way of dealing with whatever feeling comes along.
Emotional Regulation General Tools
General tools allow us to better deal with our feelings, whatever they are. It is often useful when we feel overwhelmed to stop for a moment and press pause on the intense emotion we are experiencing. Breathing techniques are a great way to do this. Taking a few deep breaths or trying some box breathing can help us to calm down and gives us something else to focus on other than the strong emotion. Self- talk is another helpful tool. This is where you say positive and reassuring things to
yourself, and has been shown to have a positive effect. These general tools give us a better ability to see clearly – remember the map – and help us to think more clearly about what to do.
Specific tools are ones we would use for a particular situation or feeling. For instance, some children (and adults too! find sensory toys very good when feeling anxious.
They have a calming effect, and the pleasant sensations help bring our heart rate down and take our mind off what is making us nervous. Bouncing on a trampoline or jumping up and down can work well with anger. Different tools will work for different feelings, and we will often have to try several things before we know what works.
Practice, Practice, Practice
The key to all of these techniques is practice. The more we do something, the better we will get at it. Practising and using the techniques in actual situations also helps us become familiar with the feelings, making them less scary. Some of the negative effects that come from being overwhelmed are a consequence of not understanding what is happening. Practising techniques also helps us to build up good habits, which means we don’t have to think too much, which, as we have said, is difficult when we are upset. You can turn practice sessions into games, making it more fun to do and making feelings less frightening.
Another great way to help your child learn ways to deal with emotions is for you to model them. Your child is watching you and will copy what you do. They are also quick to notice if you say one thing but do another. Demonstrating how to do deep breathing exercises when you are angry or upset is the best way to show that it works and give them an example to follow. What’s more, these techniques are useful for you too and will help you to deal with your difficult feelings. And of course, one of the crucial things you can model is how to talk about feelings. If you are open about how you feel, then your child will be too. And sharing feelings goes a long way to dealing with them in a good way.
This article gives a very brief overview of managing emotions. There is much more to it, but thinking about these main points is an excellent place to start. In other articles, we will explore some of the different techniques and tools you can use with your child and some of the ways you can help them learn to manage difficult emotions themselves. Feelings can be tricky sometimes, but learning to manage them doesn’t have to be. It can even be fun.