If you’re the parent of a child with autism or ADHD, self-regulation is probably a term you’ve heard a lot. Another term you might have heard more is dysregulation. That dreaded word – dysregulation. Emotional dysregulation means that an emotional response does not fall within the conventionally accepted range of emotive responses. In other words, your kid is literally losing their S*&# because you gave them the wrong pair of socks today.
When our kids are not well regulated, they start to “act out”, and you see “behaviors”. Basically, they just don’t have the skills to manage their emotions on their own. Actually, there’s a good chance that they don’t even know what the emotion they’re feeling is. You can’t cope with something that you can’t even label or understand the cause of. But good news! You can teach self-regulation skills. I’m going to share a ton of strategies with you.
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Types of Emotional Regulation
There’s actually two types of emotional regulation. There are mutual regulation and self-regulation.
Mutual regulation means your child needs YOU to help them regulate their emotions. When they’re upset you need to soothe them, help them calm down. They can not use healthy coping strategies on their own. Most kids with autism are dependant upon mutual regulation some, if not all, the time. Does your child come to you when they need help regulating? Or, do you need to recognize behavioral cues and be proactive?
Self-regulation means your child can calm down and cope with their emotions all on their own. They can walk away from a frustrating situation. They can take deep breaths to calm down and return to an activity. They can even recover from a meltdown on their own.
There’s a developmental trajectory here and milestones your kiddo will meet as their self-regulation skills develop. First will be mutual regulation, with you responding to their cues. Next, they’ll initiate the mutual regulation. Then, some self-regulation skills emerge with you modeling the right strategies. Over time as skills develop your child will start being able to recover from meltdowns sooner, and they will be less intense.
Choosing Strategies that Work for You
Figure out where your child sits on that developmental trajectory. You need to know this when you’re picking what strategies are going to work best for you. There are actually three things you need to consider when you’re deciding what strategies to teach and use.
First of all, choose strategies that are appropriate for your child’s current level of ability. All kids are unique with their own strengths and weaknesses and unique emotional regulation needs.
You need to choose strategies that are functional. What I mean by this is – your kid needs to be able to use them when they need them during their regular day-to-day routine. Where does your child spend most of their time? Home, school, the playground? When choosing coping strategies think – will they be able to practice those strategies when they need to?
Align with Family Values
This one is more so for care providers and educators. If you’re teaching or caring for a child with autism or ADHD, you need to make sure that any strategies you teach that child are consistent with the family’s priorities and values. Parents and educator, you need to work as a team at all times to provide consistency.
These are just a few other things to think about as you choose coping strategies that will encourage healthy self-regulation for your child. These are in no particular order but are here to make you think about how your child’s emotional regulation is affected by different scenarios. How is your child affected by the following:
- Group sizes? Large or small
- New environment vs familiar environment?
- Familiar caregiver vs unfamiliar caregiver?
- When feeling sick or tired?
- When feeling hungry?
- Can they transition well? Think – how would your child react if they were engaged in a fun gross motor activity and suddenly had to stop to sit in their high chair for a snack?
Keeping in mind how these different contexts can affect your kiddo, you may choose different strategies and supports, depending on the situation.
Emotional Regulation Strategies
Mutual Regulation Strategies
- Play mindfulness games (check out these activity cards)
- Model calm behavior
- Model the self-regulation strategies you want to teach
- Set up opportunities for success
- Use more positive reinforcement
- Have a consistent daily routine
- Have a bedtime routine
- Offer a break
- Offer choices
- Have a break box available
- Remove triggers
- Have a visual schedule
- Offer a snack
- Offer a drink
- Do a movement break
- Read a story
- Give a hug
- Match their language
- Get on their level, see situation from their shoes
- Use these sensory diet cards together
- Use a timer
- Use first-then statements
- Give a compliment
- Hold their hand
- Offer a sensory item like a weighted lap pad, or a resistance tunnel
- Diffuse calming essential oils
- Just ask “What would help you right now?”
- Talk about something they like
- Take them for a walk
- Offer solutions
- Remove the audience
- Ask them to draw you a picture
- Have a reward system for positive behavior
- Squish them – get your child to lay on the floor and squish them by rolling an exercise ball over them
- Use a massager
- Use a therapy brush
- Talk about feelings and size of problem
- Use the feelings check-in sheet
- Say “I understand how you feel”
- Create some sensory bins
- Get them to blow pom poms around the table or through a maze with a straw
- Create a social story
- Talk about upcoming transitions ahead of time
- Rock them calmly
- Wrap them in a weighted blanket
- Turn on the music and have an impromptu dance party
- Ask them to help you with something they’re good at
- Offer to do the task together
- Stop talking or making demands
- Use physical reinforcers like stickers or candy
- Take deep breaths
- Think of something that makes you laugh
- Go for a walk
- Slowly count backward from 10
- Squeeze a stress ball as hard as you can
- Swing on the swings
- Draw a picture of something that makes you happy
- Write a letter
- Listen to music
- Play with play-doh
- Talk to a grown up
- Talk to a friend
- Color a picture
- Use positive self-talk
- Make a list of things that you love
- Close your eyes and think about your favorite place
- Read a book
- Rip up paper
- Scream into a pillow
- Do some yoga
- Ask for a hug
- Hug your favorite stuffed animal
- Spend time with a pet
- Watch funny videos
- Identify your emotions
- Write your feelings down
- Tell someone how you’re feeling
- Ask for help
- Hang upside down
- Chew a piece of gum
- Build with Lego
- Bounce on a therapy ball
- Do 10 jumping jacks
- Snuggle with your favorite blanket
- Blow bubbles
- Make funny faces in the mirror
- Pop bubble wrap
- Sing your favorite song
- Look through a photo album
- Make jewelry with beads and pipe cleaner
- Watch a calm down bottle
- Watch a lava lamp
- Use a fidget toy
- Go outside
- Turn off the lights and look at something that glows in the dark
- Get some sleep
- Have a healthy snack
- Daydream about the perfect day
- Help someone else
- Watch the clouds
- Jump on a trampoline
- Play with a hula hoop
- Write a love letter to yourself
- Punch your pillow
- Play with a Rubik’s cube
- Keep a comforting object with you
- Use a scratch art doodle pad
- Shake up a snow globe and watch it settle
- Look through a kaleidoscope
- Draw with an etch-a-sketch
- Look at photos of family
- Keep a gratitude journal
- Watch your favorite movie
Are you looking for more help in managing meltdowns? You can click here for an in-depth guide to preventing meltdowns and outbursts. The information focuses on proactive approaches that prevent behaviors from escalating. There is tons of evidence-based strategies and step by step instructions for actually using and teaching these strategies.