Researchers define emotion regulation as the ability to exert some form of control over our emotions. According to the emotion regulation researcher James Gross, emotion regulation refers to our ability to choose our emotions, when we have them, how we experience them and how we feel them.
Much of the available emotion regulation research suggests that people often turn to similar emotion regulation strategies. Gross has identified 5 common strategies people use in an attempt to manage their emotions.
Common emotion regulation strategies
1) Situation selection
Situation selection refers to the conscious decision to avoid emotion-inducing situations. For instance, when you encourage your kid to choose soccer because he’s afraid of water, you allow him to avoid the anxiety that swimming classes would provoke.
Although avoiding anxiety-provoking situations can help regulate emotions, this is a quick fix solution that overlooks underlying issues.
2) Situation modification
Situation modification is a common emotion regulation strategy that involves making an effort to find a satisfactory solution to an anxiety-provoking situation.
For instance, if your kid is scared of swimming, talking with her swimming instructor to brainstorm possible solutions and choose the best option to help her gradually overcome her anxiety can be an effective emotion regulation strategy.
3) Attentional deployment
Attentional deployment is defined as the ability to draw attention away from emotionally disturbing situations. It involves an effort to direct one’s attention either away from or towards emotional situations. Some of the most common attentional deployment strategies used are:
– Distraction. There is evidence that distraction, i.e., diverting one’s attention from emotional information that is difficult to process may be an effective emotion regulation strategy
– Rumination, i.e., focusing one’s attention on the negative emotions and their consequences is an example of a maladaptive attentional deployment strategy. In other words, some studies have found that repetitively focusing on feelings and their consequences may increase emotional distress and even lead to longer and more severe depressive symptoms.
– Thought suppression is another attentional deployment strategy that works by changing one’s thoughts and mental images in order to attain a positive emotional state. However, thought suppression has also been associated with psychological disorders over the long term.
4) Cognitive change
Cognitive change refers to changing how we see situations in order to change the associated emotional meaning. Cognitive change strategies involve reappraising situations, distancing oneself from the situation physically or psychologically, or using humor.
5) Response modulation
Gross defines response modulation as “an attempt to directly influence experiential, behavioral, and physiological response systems.” Common response modulation strategies include drug use, exercise, and sleep.
Drawing on the strategies presented above, we can present kids with an appropriate framework to help them respond to emotions in a socially appropriate manner.
The first thing we need to teach kids is that emotions are normal reactions, but that screaming, biting, tantrums and general misbehavior is not an acceptable manner to express these emotions. To do so, kids need to be provided with the tools with which they can express their emotions appropriately.
Helping kids develop an appropriate framework to address emotions
An example of an effective tool you can use to help your child deal with difficult emotions is a calm-down jar. This refers to a jar in which you place papers or images on which different activities are proposed. Your child can turn to the calm-down jar and pick an activity whenever he or she experiences strong emotions.
An effective calm-down jar should have:
- Visually calming activities: sand-timer, sensory jar, indoor fountain, etc.
- Activities to unwind: Blow bubbles, blow a balloon, color a mandala, read a book, listen to music, etc.
- Activities to comfort: Favourite toys, hugs
- Activities to focus attention elsewhere: Rubik’s Cube, dot-to-dot pictures, images that induce positive emotions, etc
- Physical activities to release tension: ride a bike, skip rope, jump on a trampoline, push against a wall, etc.
- Things to hold or squeeze: Stress Balls, etc.
- Oral sensory activities: chewing gum, eat an apple, etc.
The easiest way to get the calm-down jar to work is to involve your kid in coming up with the calm-down strategy. Remember that involving kids in the decision-making process makes it more likely for them to stick to the decisions made.
As far as possible, let your child choose her own calm-down strategy and propose many options to allow her to change if need be. The more ideas you have the better!
Once you have selected appropriate responses to strong emotions, write these down or print them out (images also make a nice addition) and put them in the calm-down jar. Don’t forget to place the jar where she can easily reach it.
An alternative to a calm-down jar is a calm-down box. The only difference is that instead of pieces of papers or images, you can place actual objects (for example books, CDs, stress balls, puzzles, etc.) in the box and leave it in an easily accessible location. Every time your kid needs to calm down, he or she can pick an item from the box.
Remember though, that before kids can be taught to address their emotions, they need to be aware of those emotions first. Using age-appropriate strategies to talk to young kids about emotions is, therefore, the first step in helping your child learn to regulate his or her emotions.
It is equally important to keep in mind that while many of the strategies above may help kids regulate their emotions, they only offer short-term relief. In other words, these strategies do not help you understand and deal with underlying issues.
They also do not allow your child to understand how these emotions are manifested in the body. I explore some of the strategies you can use to help uncover kids’ emotion-inducing events in my Emotions Kit which targets 4-to 9-year-olds.
Where do you go from here?
- If you haven’t begun talking to your child about emotions, it’s never too late to start. Remember to keep it “short and sweet.” Below are a few resources to help you get started:
- If your child is already aware of different emotions, brainstorm different ideas to help him or her identify appropriate ways to express emotions and come up with your calm-down jar.
- Although strong emotions are normal human reactions, they may also point to more serious issues. If you feel unable to help your child manage difficult emotions, do not hesitate to seek professional help to obtain a strategy adapted to his needs.