Infants and toddlers often have outbursts and tantrums because they haven’t learned to regulate their emotions independently. However, as they grow, children reach an essential developmental milestone and gain the ability to recognize and appropriately display their emotions without help from their caregivers. This is known as emotional self-regulation.
What is emotional self-regulation?
Emotional self-regulation is the process of recognizing, managing, and appropriately displaying your emotions. Children start to learn to regulate their emotions when they’re infants, beginning to look to their caregivers for help regulating their emotions at nine months. This is known as co-regulation. When co-regulating, infants interpret their caregivers' facial expressions in unfamiliar situations and adjust their behavior accordingly.
By the time they are two to five years old, children learn to regulate their feelings and expressions independently and adapt them to meet social expectations.
Four key factors influence children's emotional self-regulation:
- Physical factors include children's genetics, temperament, and physical abilities
- Emotional factors include children's personalities, their exposure to trauma, and their ability to manage impulse responses
- Cognitive factors include their ability to focus and manage distractions
- Social and environmental factors include interpersonal interactions, empathy levels, and values
What is emotional dysregulation?
Some children have difficulty managing their emotional responses as they learn to regulate their emotions. This is known as emotional dysregulation.
Emotional dysregulation can cause children to:
- Feel emotions more intensely than they should
- Experience certain emotions for longer than they should
- Feel certain emotions at inappropriate times
- Respond to emotions in extreme ways
- Have severe mood swings or volatile emotions
Some children diagnosed with ADHD, depression, anxiety, PTSD, schizoaffective disorder, or other disorders may experience emotional dysregulation as a symptom of their condition.
Emotional dysregulation may continue to affect children into adolescence and adulthood. Adolescents and adults who struggle with emotional dysregulation may also struggle with their careers and relationships as well as their physical and mental health.
Why are emotional self-regulation skills important for young children?
Teaching young children to recognize and regulate their emotions has many benefits. Emotional self-regulation helps children ground themselves when they experience big emotions. It also helps them feel good about themselves, decreases feelings of shame and anxiety tied to uncontrollable emotions, and helps them cope and thrive within social settings and relationships.
Emotional self-regulation is an indicator of academic readiness. Young children who know how to regulate their emotions experience fewer emotional distractions. In academic settings, emotional self-regulation allows children to remain positive in the face of academic challenges, which leads to optimal learning, higher grades, and improved standardized test scores.
To regulate their emotions, children must learn the following skills:
- Sensory processing
- Attention and concentration
- Executive functioning skills
- Planning and sequencing
- Receptive language skills
- Social skills
- Working memory
These skills help children learn to recognize new emotions, learn to recognize how their bodies respond to different emotions and learn to communicate their feelings.
How to build emotional self-regulation skills in young children
Children can develop emotional self-regulation skills with consistent routines, calm-down strategies, practice expressing their feelings, and positive and supportive adult interactions.
Seven engaging activities that build young children's emotional regulation skills
Educators and parents can help young children learn to self-regulate their emotions with these engaging activities and crafts.
1. Sensory bottles
A sensory bottle is a bottle filled with glitter, sequins, glue, and water. The glitter and sequins move around as children move and shake the bottle, creating a fun visual experience.
This galaxy-themed sensory bottle craft is a fun tool that you can use to help children relax when they’re feeling heightened emotions.
To create a galaxy-themed sensory bottle, you'll need:
- A plastic bottle
- Purple, blue, silver, and pink glitter
- Star sequins
- Glitter glue
- 1/2 cup of corn syrup
- Hot glue
How to make galaxy-themed sensory bottles:
- 1. Place the glitter, sequins, corn syrup, and water in the plastic bottle.
- 2. Seal the cap onto the bottle with hot glue.
- 3. Shake the sensory bottle and watch the glitter and sequins float around in the corn syrup, glue, and water.
4. Encourage children to use the sensory bottles to shake out their big feelings, then have them breathe slowly as they watch the glitter slowly sink to the bottom of the bottle. This can help them focus on their bodies, regulate their breathing, and relax.
2. Music-inspired art
This art activity encourages children to paint or draw pictures inspired by the emotions they feel when listening to music. This activity helps children learn to identify their emotions and express them creatively.
To create music-inspired art with your children, you'll need:
- Classical music or a piece of music without lyrics
- Colored pencils
- Watercolor paints
How to make music-inspired art:
- 1. Have your child sit or lay comfortably and breathe deeply with their eyes covered for a full minute.
- 2. At the end of a minute, ask your child to open their eyes and tell you what sounds they heard.
- 3. Have them repeat step one while silently listening to a few minutes of classical or instrumental music.
- 4. After listening to the music silently, have them listen to it a second time. At the end of the second time, ask your child what they noticed about the music.
- 5. When you're ready to move on to the art portion of the activity, have your child listen to the music again and ask them to respond to it with a drawing or painting.
- 6. Ask your child what colors the music made them think of, how it made them feel, and whether it seemed loud or soft, fast or slow. You can use this time to teach your child that colors can be associated with emotions (e.g., yellow for happiness, blue for sadness, and red for anger).
3. Dragon breathing
This deep breathing exercise is a great way to teach young children to use deep belly breathing to control their anger.
How to do dragon breathing:
- 1. Introduce this activity by talking about anger. It can feel like a fire growing in our tummies.
- 2. Sit down put your hand on your belly
- 3. Breathe in through your nose and blow out hard through your nose to get all the fire out from your tummy
4. Repeat steps 2-3 until you feel calm.
4. Identifying character emotions
This activity by Education to the Core uses movies and TV shows to teach young children to identify emotions and develop calming strategies. This activity encourages children to observe how characters react to situations, identify the emotions the characters may be feeling, and brainstorm ways that the characters can regulate their emotions.
How to teach children to identify character emotions:
- 1. Show your child a clip of a movie or cartoon. For example, you could show them the "It's Okay to Like Different Things" scene from Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.
- 2. Have your child identify the emotions that the characters are feeling. For example, in the “It’s Okay to Like Different Things" scene from the episode “Daniel’s Lunch,” Daniel feels excited to eat his egg salad sandwich, but he feels sad when Miss Elaina says she doesn’t like egg salad.
- 3. Have your child brainstorm strategies the characters could implement to feel better, such as taking deep breaths or talking to someone they trust about how they feel.
By identifying characters' emotions, young children learn to recognize their own emotions and brainstorm strategies they can use to feel better.
5. Blowing bubbles
Blowing bubbles is a fun way for children to regulate their breathing. It can also help children calm down when they’re experiencing big emotions. All you need is a bubble solution and a bubble wand. If you don’t have a bubble solution, you can make your own using water, sugar, and dish soap.
Show your child how to blow softly to create bubbles, then show them that blowing too much air will make the bubble pop. If your child gets frustrated while trying to blow bubbles, encourage them to take slow breaths to calm down. Breathe slowly with them, then have them use the same slow breathing technique to blow bubbles.
Mindfulness helps young children reduce stress and improve their attention and academic performance. You can teach young children mindfulness using books and exercises. For example, Susan Verde’s book I Am Peace: A Book of Mindfulness teaches young children the tenets of mindfulness and encourages them to breathe and be present in the moment. I Am Peace includes a guided meditation exercise that you can do with your children to help them regulate their emotions and practice mindfulness.
7. Toilet paper roll puppets
This toilet paper roll craft encourages young children to practice expressing emotions by playing with puppets made from toilet paper rolls.
To create toilet paper roll puppets, you'll need:
- Toilet paper rolls
- Googly eyes
- A glue stick
- Felt balls (optional)
How to make toilet paper roll puppets:
- 1. Glue two googly eyes on each of the toilet paper rolls.
- 2. Use a marker to draw eyebrows and a mouth on each toilet paper roll to represent different emotions (e.g., happy, sad, angry, scared, etc.).
- 3. Have your child use the puppets to express how they’re feeling.
- You can use toilet paper roll puppets to encourage your children to role-play or as an activity that allows them to check in and indicate how they are feeling throughout the day.
Emotional self-regulation is a skill that all young children need to develop with the help of their caregivers. Children who experience emotional dysregulation may require more support in learning to regulate their emotions than others. Crafts, activities, and breathing exercises are fun ways to teach all of your children emotional self-regulation skills that help them identify, manage, and appropriately display their emotions.