Emotions are a normal part of life. When we regulate our emotions, we are practicing a skill to control or manage our emotions in a healthy and safe manner. We are not born with the intrinsic ability to regulate our emotions, it is something we need to learn and practice. Emotional regulation is possible to learn at every stage of life.
What Is Emotional Regulation?
The term emotional regulation is used to describe how we manage and respond to our emotions during a variety of emotional experiences. Our emotions can vary in depth and intensity and sometimes can feel overwhelming or unmanageable.1 To regulate your emotions is to acknowledge, accept, and reduce the chance of engaging in unhealthy behaviors or feeling defined or paralyzed by the emotion.
Emotional regulation is a skill that needs to be taught and practiced. Most people already have strategies to regulate their emotions based on their own observations from family, friends, or strangers, previous experiences feeling intense emotions, or other environmental and cultural influences. Regulating our emotions can come in many forms and there are some that are healthy and some that are unhealthy.
Healthy emotional regulation can include:
- Talking with a trusted person
- Exercising (going for a walk, doing an at-home workout, playing basketball)
- Challenging negative thoughts
- Removing yourself from a situation
- Positive Affirmations
Unhealthy emotional regulation, or emotional dysregulation, can include:
- Avoidance and withdrawing from situations and people
- Substance use
- Self harming behaviors
- Binge or restrictive eating
- Aggressive behavior towards self or others
- Frequent emotional detachment or suppression
Why Is Emotion Regulation Important?
Emotional regulation is an important skill to learn and practice because we face emotional situations daily in our work and school life, relationships, parenting, and unexpected or unplanned events. Change is constant in life and our emotions change too. It is important to be able to regulate our emotions to cope with daily challenges life can present. Being able to regulate emotions is part of being a well-rounded and emotionally healthy individual.
Research has indicated that healthy emotional regulation has several positive correlations which can include better psychological health, increased well-being, better social functioning, improved coping skills during stressful events, and experiencing success in a school or work setting.2 The ability to regulate emotions can provide immediate relief as well as impact long term relationships, mental health, and well being.
The Effects of Poor Emotional Self-Regulation
The inability to regulate emotions can impact an individual’s life. If an individual is unable to regulate their emotions it could begin to impact their relationships, ability to socially interact, daily functioning, ability to complete tasks/be successful, or engage in unhealthy emotion regulation.
According to research having poor emotional regulation can be indicative of a variety of psychopathologies. For example individuals with personality disorders, Bipolar type II, anxiety disorder, mood disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder may have difficulty regulating emotions.3
Therapy can be a helpful resource in beginning to explore possible causes of poor emotional regulation, learn more about emotional regulation, or practice new skills with a professional. Finding a therapist is an important decision, and choosing a therapist can help with emotion regulation.
Useful Emotion Regulation Skills for Adults
Adults are faced with a wide variety of emotional experiences that can happen everyday. Some activities that can elicit emotional response would be work, parenting, relationships, caregiving, going to school, or traveling to names few.
All of these examples can create unexpected changes in our routine or daily life, increase stress levels, high levels of excitement, or create thoughts related to the future; which can in turn cause one to have an emotional response.
Some important emotion regulation skills include:
- Identify and name emotions without judgement: Emotions are natural and are neither good or bad. Being able to identify your emotion without judgement can help you explore the emotion deeper and refrain from acting impulsively or in an unhealthy manner.
- Self-Awareness: Our emotions can be impacted by a variety of variables. Doing a self check can help you recognize how variables like tiredness, hunger, or irritability can influence emotions and ability to regulate.
- Reframe negative thoughts: We can be our worst critic at times, especially when it comes to our emotions. Instead of thinking, “I shouldn’t be so upset about this,” try reframing the thought to, “This situation is hard and it is okay to be upset.”
- Self Compassion: If you find yourself continually criticizing your emotions or reactions try practicing self compassion. Ask yourself, “what would I say if my friend/sister/spouse were going through this?” and take the response and turn it inward; in a sense be your own friend and encourager.
- Build a strong support system: There will be times when our own capability to regulate might not be enough. Having a trusted person, group, or seeking therapy can help with emotional regulation.
Be aware and understanding emotional regulation will help you filter what emotions may need regulating. We do not necessarily have to regulate every emotion, that would be impossible and time consuming. When it comes to regulating emotions we want to regulate ones that are impacting our daily living skills, relationships, functioning socially, or self-esteem.
Teaching a Child Emotion Regulation
Children experience similar emotions to adults like anger, frustration, exhaustion, and excitement to list a few. Children, however, can lack the ability and knowledge to understand their emotion and how to regulate their reactions to emotions. It is important to teach children though verbal explanation and modeling or assisting appropriate skills to regulate emotions.
A few helpful suggestions to help children regulation emotions include:
- Model and practice calming techniques (grounding, meditation, breathing, talking)
- Use transitions (we have 10 minutes left to play at the park, what would you like to do?)
- Break down tasks into smaller steps
- Use positive praise when the child practices a technique or regulates in a healthy way
- Openly discuss emotions and behaviors often / talk about what children have seen their favorite character do when they felt a certain emotion or share your own experiences
A few suggestions to avoid include:
- Overtaking, hovering, or trying to fix the situation without child input. Children as they age begin to seek more independence and more desire to problem solve on their own. Instead offer to check-in periodically.
- Be mindful to not to be dismissive of emotional reactions to experiences, like if your young child experiences stranger anxiety. It is important to help your child understand that their emotional response to a situation is okay; it is not wrong, it is their experience. The focus should be on how to regulate in a healthy way.
It is important to teach children the skills to regulate their emotions. Try not to completely avoid or pacify difficult emotional experiences for children, instead provide a supportive and safe space to help teach and coach your child through the experience. By doing so, this will provide groundwork for future emotionally challenging situations.4
Take into consideration your child’s developmental age. Infants rely solely on their caretaker to monitor and assist with regulating emotions. Children under four begin to recognize different emotions like sadness, fear, anger, and happiness, yet still need guidance and reassurance from their caregiver to help manage and practice healthy emotional regulation.5
As children age, generally they begin to become more aware of emotions and what society reinforces as appropriate emotional behavior. Pre-teens and teenagers can begin to show keen awareness and concern of how they are viewed by others which can cause emotional experiences. It is during this time that unhealthy emotional regulation skills might be present and there could be a decrease in ability to utilize healthy skills. Gender, societal, and cultural norms can also be factors that impact emotional regulation skills.5
Examples of Healthy Emotional Regulation
Emotions and emotional experiences are a part of our everyday life. It is possible to regulate and alleviate the intensity of our emotions that feel overwhelming or unmanageable. Regulating emotions is a learned skill and it takes practice to implement healthy skills.
Below are some examples of how emotions can be regulated in a healthy manner:
An Adult Starts a New Job & Doubts Their Competency
Healthy emotional regulation in this situation might include the individual recognizing the emotion of doubt and uncertainty about the new job. By pausing and reflecting the individual can begin to explore the emotion. The person might remind themselves that the job is brand new and will take time to learn or remind themselves the hiring manager believed they were best suited for the position.
The individual could practice positive affirmations that are specific to their skills and work performances. “I am a hard worker,” “I am smart,” “It is okay to not know everything, I am learning a new job.” Challenging self doubt and extending grace to oneself can help alleviate the intensity of the emotion.
Teen Struggles to Complete Schoolwork & Feels Frustrated
Caregivers can struggle with watching children struggle or experience difficult emotions. Naturally, the caregiver can be tempted to overtake or fix the situation. However, this can be viewed as controlling to a teenager who might be trying to assert more independence. It could result in the child becoming frustrated with the caregiver too.
Caregivers could ask permission or offer to help the teen. The caregiver might say, “would you like me to show you how to do one problem?” or, “I am available to help you would like.” If the teen declines, accept their choice and ask, “would it be okay if I check in later to see how it’s going?” Caregivers could also encourage the teen take a break and go for a walk or grab a snack.
If the subject is something the teen repeatedly struggles with, offer an empathetic statement like, “math can be a difficult subject,” or “I struggled with English while I was in school, too,” or offer to look up some resources to help. Acknowledging the hard work and effort to the teen can be helpful by saying, “I know you are frustrated and you keep working hard. I’m proud of you,” or “Math is hard, it is okay to feel frustrated. I’m here for you.”
A Young Child Is Angry That Rain Kept Her From Going to the Park
Children look forward to events and when outside circumstances change plans, it can be difficult to accept. Anger is an emotion that children can express in several ways. A child might yell, stomp around, clench fists, or become red in the face. A caregiver can model and help the child regulate their emotion. Remember to be supportive, empathetic, and calm with the child. Be mindful not to be dismissive of an emotion. It is also appropriate to redirect a behavior done in anger such as throwing or breaking items.
A caregiver might sit or crouch down to the child’s eye level and make an empathic statement like, “I see you are angry, let’s take some deep breaths together,” “It is okay you are angry, I know you were looking forward to going to the park today,” “Can we work through your anger together?” or “tell me how you are feeling,” or “It is very upsetting when we don’t get to go to the park.” Have an open discussion about anger and let your child know that it is okay to feel angry and talk about what to do when anger happens.
A visual chart might be helpful for children. If a child is unwilling to engage in talking, it might be helpful to practice some grounding techniques like mediation, breathing, or muscle relaxation in order to regulate. Another option would be to ask the child if they can think of any indoor activities to do instead. If the child is struggling to think of an activity, offer up an alternative; coloring, baking, playing a game, or watching a movie. Positive praise for regulating an emotion will help reinforce to the child that our emotions are okay and we can manage how we feel.