Develop Emotional Regulation Skills
Use Awareness of Body Stress Signals
You may notice that your child has a temper that flares with friends, at school, and during sports. When his friend doesn’t text him back quickly enough, he may tell him he made plans with someone else. When the coach doesn’t start him in the game he might blurt out, “That’s not fair.” As a result, he risks social fallout with friends and problems with authority figures.
Most high-school age children will blurt out something hurtful or angry to a friend, teacher or coach at some point, especially if they’re tired or stressed. But if your child is constantly flying off the handle, getting in fights with friends or talking back to authority, this could indicate he is struggling to develop emotional regulation skills.
Emotional regulation is one of our executive functions: the set of skills that let us effectively execute daily tasks.
Solution: Awareness of Body Stress Signals
When something happens that upsets a child or teen, taking a brief pause to be aware of the physical feelings associated with stress can help him create a habit that replaces overly emotional responses.
Ask your child to start paying attention to those bodily signals and to accept them as a sign that he is upset. This can include identifying a racing heartbeat, sweaty palms, tense shoulders, etc. He needs to let himself notice those signals for a few moments — shifting focus away from the situation — and try not to “do” anything else within the situation. The new inward focus is not only a forced stop — it also substitutes a positive action. Your child is noticing, and accepting, his bodily signs of stress. Over time, this approach can rewire his emotional response.
Don’t do this: Punish your child when he lashes out angrily because the coach took him out of the game.
Try this instead: Help your child to identify in advance his “hot buttons.” Then talk him through how that might feel physically. Ask your child to imagine the situation and physical feelings he might have, like his heart racing or muscles tensing. Then, let him know those physical feelings will pass if he waits. Say, “the next time X happens, just tune in to those feelings and wait for them to pass instead of lashing out.” You can try to help those feelings subside by using deep breathing techniques.
Ask him to give you reports on his success with this approach. Ask him to describe the specifics of his stress signals. Break down his signals — and help him to identify them — in a matter-of-fact way that conveys a nonjudgmental attitude. Encourage him to be accepting of body signals. Applaud his success whenever he shows restraint and the ability to take this pause.
Remember: Your child’s emotional reactivity toward the people in his life isn’t about being “good” or “bad”. Improving emotional control will help him be a better friend, build social skills, and be proud of his maturity.
It is perfectly normal for children to experience some degree of difficulty and frustration as they learn to execute new tasks. Toddlers can tantrum, school-aged children can yell and argue, and teenagers can ignore instructions. When deciding if executive function weaknesses require intervention, ask yourself: “How frequently is this occurring? How intense is the experience/significant the impact?” If your answer to these questions is “too much,” “too often,” “I don’t know what to do to change this,” or “it’s only getting worse,” you may benefit from a face-to-face conversation to help problem-solve your concern. Effective problem solving will help you clearly identify the problem, goal, steps it will take to achieve your goal, possible barriers, and available supports.