How do you help a child to regulate their emotions?

As part of my work at Chance UK I will often work with children who struggle to regulate their emotions and behaviour. Understanding the triggers and creating a supportive and safe space is vital in the early days of any mentoring relationship. While some children may have been diagnosed with autism or ADHD, others may have no formal diagnosis. Through mentoring we can help build their self-esteem and give them some strategies to cope with their emotions. 

It’s not always easy, especially when you are in the early stages of trying to build a relationship with a child, but it is incredibly rewarding to see how much progress we can make in six or nine months. 

I recently worked with a seven-year-old boy that I’m going to call Callum. Callum has been diagnosed with autism and is highly intelligent for his age. He tends to have a somewhat cynical view of himself and the world around him. At first, he was very shy, but he quickly became comfortable, especially when I drew upon his interests in art, science, and maths. At the beginning, we met at Callum’s home as his mum had told me that he often had meltdowns in public places. After about two months, Callum’s social interactions and communication skills had developed to the point that we started to go out and about.  

This was a huge step forward. At the start of our sessions, Callum had a very negative view of himself, his self-esteem was low, and he felt like he was not a good person. He even mentioned that he had ‘switched to the dark side’. He also struggled with identifying his emotions correctly. Whenever he felt sad or anxious, he thought that he was feeling angry. This only added to his negative perception of himself. 

So what did I find worked? 

At first, I used ‘Feel It’ cards which describe a wide range of emotions and their definitions. By using these cards, Callum was able to understand the variety of emotions and, as a result, express himself more effectively and accurately. I saw a real improvement as he started to recognise and comprehend his emotions better.  

Throughout our time together, Callum made significant progress in his emotional regulation. He is now able to express his emotions more articulately and has become more willing to ask for help when he needs it. His ability to identify and understand others’ emotions and show empathy towards them has also improved, which is a great achievement. 

But it’s not always been straightforward. Callum and I were in a supermarket when he began having a meltdown because I refused his request to buy a large tub of chocolate ice cream. When he began hitting himself and exclaiming ‘I hate myself’ in the store aisle, I was initially at a loss as to how to handle the situation. I realised that Callum was experiencing a dysregulated emotional state, where he had limited control over his actions and was struggling to engage in rational thinking. So the calmer my voice became, the more he escalated. Eventually, we rode it out and he was able to calm down.  

In the past when Callum became dysregulated, I would tell him, ‘I want to talk about what happened’ and sometimes, either he would genuinely not remember the details of what happened, or he’d become retriggered as his nervous system wasn’t entirely calm. After the supermarket incident, I took Callum to a park and talked with him about his meltdown-induced behaviour. I explained that his actions had made me feel sad and expressed my concern about his well-being. Callum was initially defensive and resistant to talk about what had just happened. He said, ‘I told you I’m a bad person. I hurt people’s feelings.’ I gave him some space to calm down and waited for about 30 minutes. Then we played some games and Callum eventually told me that he acted out because he wanted the ice cream and felt frustrated and disappointed when I said no. He also explained that he ‘hates’ himself for doing ‘things like that’, which caused him to react in such a way. 

Despite how difficult this conversation was, Callum still managed to reflect on his meltdown-induced behaviour. The fact that he was able to acknowledge that his actions had a negative impact on those around him was an important step in helping him gain greater self-awareness.  

It’s important to understand that meltdowns are involuntary and are a fight/flight/freeze response triggered by overwhelming environmental or sensory stimuli. Whereas tantrums are more intentional and typically seen as an attempt in trying to get something. Tantrums are not always linked to sensory overload, however they can overlap. A tantrum can become a meltdown, as the child loses control over their ability to think or communicate rationally and becomes overwhelmed.  

Since our work over the last eight months, Callum has learnt how to regulate his emotions more easily. It has been an honour and privilege for me to witness first-hand his growth and development and I am immensely proud of him. 

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