In April 2023, my son had one of the worst meltdowns I could remember. He was screaming, running, crying, throwing himself on the ground, and was generally inconsolable. He struggled with emotional regulation at that moment.
See, his routine had been thrown off. But how do you help an autistic child regulate emotions in such a situation?
In my case, it was a simple solution. My son loves socks, and I had forgotten to put them on him after giving him his shower. When I brought up laundry to fold, he grabbed one of his socks from the basket, and I immediately knew what he wanted and how I could help him. After getting his socks on, he sat on the couch for about 30 minutes watching television until he was ready to put himself to bed.
In this case, socks were his emotional regulation. But finding the right way to regulate emotions can be challenging. Let’s take a closer look.
What Is Emotional Regulation?
Cornell University defines emotional regulation as “a person’s ability to effectively manage and respond to an emotional experience.”
But it is so much more than just management and response. It can be as simple as putting on socks to something far more serious, requiring counseling and therapy. It can require coping strategies, or it can simply be exercising. There’s no surefire way to regulate anyone’s emotions when overwhelmed, but that can be especially true when parenting a child with autism.
Sensory overload can lead to emotional struggles for children on the autism spectrum. Loud noises make my younger son tizzy because they can be too much for him. Anxiety in social situations is an emotional trigger for my older son.
Autism Parenting Magazine has previously addressed emotional regulation skills in school settings. But how do you teach emotional regulation skills?
Importance Of Emotional Regulation Skills
Why is it essential for autistic children to have emotional regulation skills? The simple answer is it will make life easier for them. Developing emotional regulation skills can lead to fewer outbursts and less anxiety.
Situations often leading to anger, frustration, or meltdowns can be soothed with emotion regulation. But before children learn emotion regulation, they must understand what is causing both positive and negative emotions. Then, they can learn emotion regulation skills to help turn negative emotions into positive ones.
Ways To Assist Your Child With Emotional Regulation
Here are practical ways parents can help their child who is on the autism spectrum with emotional regulation.
1. Practice Deep Breathing Exercises
Breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth is a deep breathing exercise taught to help many people when they are upset, whether they be neurotypical or neurodiverse. I have used this method with my older son to help him regulate his emotions when he is overwhelmed.
2. Establish Zones of Regulation
Autism Parenting Magazine has covered these zones in the past. It’s a system designed to help children with autism recognize when they need more regulation. It can be a color-coded system, an emotional levels chart, or a numerical system of zones to help the child identify where they are at. We used this with my son, who admitted during his 5th grade school year that on a scale of 1-5, he would wake up at four on school days because moving to Intermediate School was overwhelming for him.
3. Discuss Appropriate Reactions
Once your child understands which emotions fall into which zones, discuss with your child. You can talk about how your child wants to react and whether that is appropriate. Then, discuss the best ways to respond.
4. Model Appropriate Behavior
It’s important not to overreact. If you want your child the regulate their emotions, you can’t be overreacting emotionally. If you model these behaviors, you can help them cope and demonstrate how you handle these emotions, so they can see what to do.
5. Communicate Expectations Calmly
Much like modeling behaviors, children will emulate your communication examples. Explain what you expect from them calmly. They will be more likely to recognize the situation and implement emotional regulation.
6. Acknowledge Your Child’s Feelings
If your child is frustrated, emotional regulation may only be possible once their feelings are acknowledged. They may want someone to know why they are frustrated, angry, or upset. Acknowledging your child’s feelings will help them recognize the negative emotions and move forward.
7. Practice Calming Activities
Other self-regulation skills besides deep breathing exercises can help correct emotional dysregulation. My son required using a fidget spinner to help give him something to keep his mind and hands busy. He would also participate in something we called “the five senses,” where he would use numbers and senses to calm down. This included “five things you can see, four things you can here” until he got down to one.
8. Prepare A Special Calming Place
This is easier said than done. At home, you can prepare a place that comforts your child and allows them to calm down. But this will only sometimes be the case if you are out in public. Still, have a comfortable place for your child to practice emotion regulation skills.
9. Use Counting Strategies
Sometimes, something as simple as counting can help regulate emotions. Your child may need to count cracks on a sidewalk or tiles in a ceiling or floor. For some kids, counting gets their minds off what’s bothering them and leads to emotional regulation.
10. Take A Break
Sometimes people need to step away from a situation to calm down. This is especially true for children on the autism spectrum. They may need to walk away from a situation, either to their special calming place or somewhere else, just to be able to implement other self-regulation skills.
From personal experience, exercise helps my son work through his emotional dysregulation. If your child likes to run or jump, encourage them to do that when they need emotional regulation. Exercise can go a long way in helping get emotions under control. It can also boost physical health.
12. Use Calm Down Kits
Find out what your child likes and what improves their mood, and create a kit with those items. Sometimes called a “calm down kit,” this can engage their senses and encourage positive emotional reactions.
13. Solve Problems With Your Child
If emotional dysregulation is causing personal problems for them, parents should work with them to recognize and adjust their behaviors. My son sometimes struggled to make friends because his competitiveness made it challenging to accept a loss. We worked with him to understand that he won’t always win and can’t get angry if he loses fair and square.
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14. Find a Way To Boost a Child’s Mood
Ask your children what they like and dislike. Learn what makes them happy and what makes them sad or angry. Emotional control and regulation are only possible if your child recognizes positive and negative feelings. Whatever can boost your child’s mood, whether activities, music, or a television show, can go a long way toward emotional self-regulation.
15. Set Small Tasks
Some kids on the spectrum can become overwhelmed if something is too big, and emotion regulation can become difficult. My older son has this problem when asked to clean his room. If many tasks are required to complete the overall task, his emotional reactions become as big as the task at hand. But, if we set smaller tasks that are easier for him to understand, his emotional regulation skills kick in, and he can get his room clean.
16. Teach Self Reflection
This goes back to discussing appropriate reactions and modeling appropriate behaviors. The Child Mind Institute suggests that providing this non-judgmental feedback allows the kids to understand how to look at their behaviors and make better decisions.
17. Help Detect Emotional Triggers
Just like you need to find mood boosters to help your child’s emotion regulation skills, you must also find the negative triggers that cause emotional dysregulation. This will help your child understand what’s causing the complex emotions they are experiencing.
18. Practice Your Words
This one is a little tough for me since one of my children is nonverbal, but if you can get your child to use their words, it will go a long way for emotion regulation. This will allow them to communicate what’s wrong. Even if your child is nonverbal like mine, you can still get them to use words through whatever form of communication they use. Whether through an electronic communication device, like an iPad or sign language, they can still use their words even if it isn’t verbal.
19. Deep Pressure
We have used this with my older son when he is emotionally overwhelmed. A deep-pressure home provides a sense of safety and security that will allow for emotional regulation. This will only work if your child can allow for a deep pressure hug, but deep pressure and breathing exercises can lead to calm if they are.
20. Be Reassuring
In a moment of emotional dysregulation, your child may feel like their emotions are too much to overcome. This is when parents need to be reassuring these feelings will pass. Once the child’s emotions are regulated, they will likely understand what was wrong and how you helped them. Still, at the moment, they can’t control their feelings and need you to reassure them.
21. Have A Routine
Many children on the autism spectrum thrive with routine, but when that routine is thrown off, everything can become overwhelming. As I mentioned at the beginning, this can be as simple as someone not being there or not having an article of clothing. Routines are often a vital part of emotion regulation.
22. Offer Food Or Drink
While your child may not be overwhelmed because they are hungry or thirsty, offering a snack or drink can lead to emotion regulation. It will give them focus, and they may be hungry or thirsty on top of whatever bothers them. This is a tactic we’ve employed with my younger son, and it helps him.
23. Offer Choice
This one is, admittedly, a double-edged sword regarding emotion regulation. Choice can be a wonderful thing that allows the child to feel more in control of the situation, and that can help them recognize the issue. However, the choice can also be overwhelming and make things worse if it makes the child feel more frustrated. This is one where the parent needs to assess the situation before implementing it.
24. Take Child For Ride
Similarly to an exercise break, this one can work in the right situation. My younger son loves riding in the car. We learned it when my wife had COVID, and my son didn’t understand why everyone in the house was separated. I couldn’t take him inside anywhere, but a 10-minute drive did wonders for him, and I could take him home, where he would play in his room again. It continues to be a preferred choice for his emotional regulation.
25. Use First-Then Statements
With my younger son, it can be difficult to lead him to emotion regulation when his mind is focused on one thing. Using his iPad, we have started using first-then statements to relay that something must happen before he can get what he wants. My wife and I have seen a reduction in meltdowns connected to emotional dysregulation. It doesn’t remove them altogether, but it leads to a level of understanding that helps him emotionally.
These are just some ways to help your child with emotional regulation skills. It can be challenging to get through to your child during dysregulation.
Their struggles may not seem like much to people on the outside, but to that child, they are the most significant issues in the world at that moment. Children need guidance for emotional regulation. Some will require assistance from parents, while the children can apply others after their parents teach them.
In the end, emotional regulation strategies go a long way in helping children manage difficult emotions, and that’s what we all want for our children.