Have you ever found yourself overwhelmed in a situation where the TV is on, something is burning in the kitchen, your child is asking for help with their homework, the dog is barking to be let outside, your partner just dropped a glass, and the baby just started crying?
How do you regulate yourself at that moment? You are not alone if you feel overwhelmed with sounds, smells, responsibilities, frustration, and urgency.
Now, think of a child and their ability to regulate themselves in a situation like that — what can help?
We have all heard about it and try to practice it — but what exactly is it?
According to Psychology Today; “Emotion regulation is the ability to exert control over one’s own emotional state. It may involve behaviors such as rethinking a challenging situation to reduce anger or anxiety, hiding visible signs of sadness or fear, or focusing on reasons to feel happy or calm.”
This can be difficult for adults, not to mention children. For children, navigating what it means to be “regulated” can be tricky! It takes a lot of practice for a child to learn what works for them to get back to a “regulated” state.
What is a regulated state?
Regulated does not mean calm and happy all the time. It means when we feel overwhelmed, we can use tools to either stay in control or return to a state of control.
Occupational therapy (OT) teaches children how to take input from their environment, process it, and produce a productive output.
Without being able to emotionally regulate, a child may have greater difficulty with expressing their emotions and display heightened behaviors, which in the future could lead to difficulties with social skills.
5 Ways OT Can Help Kids Regulate Emotions
1. Teach calming strategies.
These may include breathing techniques, yoga poses, self-talk strategies, education on their own body awareness through interoception.
2. Teach children how to label their feelings and emotions.
Children struggle with language and need help putting words to their emotions and feelings.
3. Challenge their processing skills.
Learning how to use problem-solving in a safe space can help children learn how to solve problems in more challenging situations when they arise. OTs use real-life scenarios and break them up into smaller parts to identify triggers. Then work through how they processed the past information/details of the incident, and what they can do differently next time. This also works with a made-up scenario, in which the child has to think ahead to something that may happen in the future.
4. Integrate movement such as an obstacle course with varied sensory, balance, and regulation activities.
This helps to improve sensory regulation and problem solving. Have them set up obstacle courses with peers so they can practice expressing their wants and needs to others. This can be mimicked at home while learning a new game or setting up your own course in the backyard with household items!
5. Focus on the senses (visual, auditory, oral, olfactory, tactile, proprioception, vestibular). Utilize a calming/sensory basket or find other ways to incorporate the activities below:
Providing sensory input: Such as oral motor activities like blowing bubbles, sucking a drink through a straw, or chewing gum. Oral-motor input can be very organizing for our brains.
Proprioceptive and tactile activities: Activities like squishing, hugs, jumping on a trampoline, jumping and crashing into a crash pad or pillow, Play Doh, rolling a child up in a blanket (like a taco), using a weighted blanket, or a compression vest. Deep pressure is a universally calming sensation. As a child receives deep pressure input, the parasympathetic nervous system activates, and the child becomes calm and regulated.
Vestibular activities: Actions such as swinging, rocking, or inversion. Specific movement patterns help calm the central nervous system through the vestibular system. OTs who are specially trained in these areas and know what signs to watch for that the body has taken in too much or too little of a particular input.
Auditory activities: Things like music with headphones, a white noise machine, and Auditory Listening Programs.
Vision activities: Developing use of sensory water bottles for calming, lava lamps, and visually tracking tasks can all be very soothing and calming as it gives our brain good input that can distract from the upsetting feelings a child may be experiencing.
Olfactory (scent) activities: This could range from smelling the child’s favorite blanket to using essential oils to help regulate the child’s body.
Our team here at Beyond Boundaries is highly skilled in all areas listed above, and can help your child get on a path to better emotional regulation!