How To Help Young Children with Autism Regulate Their Emotions
Takeaway: To teach children with autism how to regulate their emotions, we need to (1) Explore what emotions are using ‘emotion cards’ and ‘social stories,’ (2) Rate emotions on an emotions-thermometer scale, and (3) Use basic attention-redirection techniques like mindfulness and deep breathing.
Emotions add so much depth to our lives. But they’re also a vital survival tool when used correctly.
We usually think of emotions in terms of the intense experiences (e.g., happiness, sadness, fear, etc.) they provide. But really, they’re a powerful survival tool. For instance, our ancestors navigated a world full of predators by using their emotional ‘fight or flight’ response to make quick decisions. It’s what made them instinctively run from a wolf pack instead of wasting time analysing the situation rationally. And today, subtle emotions like embarrassment and compassion help us navigate a complex social world. But emotions are helpful only when we handle them correctly. For instance, a child’s exam anxieties are useful if they motivate her to study, and are harmful if they stress her so much that she gives up.
That’s why we need to learn how to regulate our emotions.
Other people may trigger our emotions, but we can still decide how to respond – i.e., choose which emotions to engage with, for how long, and with what intensity. This process of negotiating with our emotions is called emotional regulation. Often, it’s automatic and unconscious, but we can learn to make it more deliberate and controlled. For instance, the anxious student we described above didn’t choose to feel anxious. But now that it’s happened, she can learn to negotiate the anxiety down to a slight feeling of discomfort or restlessness. With practice, she’ll find her emotional sweet spot – not so anxious that she’s frozen with fear, but not so relaxed that she doesn’t bother studying. And this emotional regulation will also improve her social life – affecting how she processes anger, jealousy, sadness, and other emotions common in close friendships.
The challenge with children is that they need help regulating their emotions.
Well-regulated children find it significantly easier to live balanced, fulfilling lives. But developing emotional regulation is a tough task. It means soothing the fight-or-flight ‘activation’ response (e.g., a rising heart rate and blood sugar levels) long enough to examine your emotions rationally. And young children don’t have many self-soothing strategies to choose from. For example, they might suck their thumb, turn away from what’s scaring them, or leave the room. But that’s about all they’re biologically programmed to do, and they’ll need their caregivers’ support for everything else.
This is even more so for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Autism is a developmental difference that (among other things) makes it tougher for children to understand and share what they’re feeling. (Learn more about autism spectrum disorder.) So, while they do feel strong emotions, they aren’t particularly interested in exploring their inner emotional world. Instead, they tend to suppress or avoid their emotions, making it harder for caregivers to understand what they’re going through. And this means that parents and guardians have to approach the emotional-regulation challenge differently.
The first step is to help children with autism identify and name their emotions.
Since emotions are so abstract, we can start by helping children connect internal, seemingly-mysterious emotions with objective and visible body-language cues. For instance, they might not know what anger is, but they know what a frown looks like. So, that simple, physical cue would be a good place to start. This is where emotion cards can help. They’re regular paper cards with images of people in real-life situations showing clearly-visible body language (e.g., a crying face or slumped shoulders). By working through the cards, children can learn to connect abstract emotions with everyday non-verbal cues. And we can explore these emotions further by using social stories – describing, and talking through, a relatable social situation like meeting new children at a park. For instance, if a child at the park says ‘Hi!’, why is she doing it? And what does it mean? Plus, what are a few things your child could do to respond? And how can she politely say ‘no’ if she’s not up to playing?
Next, we can teach children to rate the intensity of their emotions.
Recognising emotions is important, but so is knowing how intensely we feel them. And the emotional thermometer is a fun visual tool for this. Here, you’ll draw a thermometer with a scale going from 1 to 5, transitioning from blue to green to yellow to red. After naming an emotion, your child can rate its intensity by connecting it to the appropriate thermometer colour – blue for mild, green for moderate, yellow for high, and red for intense.
Finally, we can test out ways of tweaking an emotion’s intensity.
Now that your child can recognise emotions, she can experiment with different coping strategies to bring unpleasant emotions down from the red zone to the blue. The simplest solution is to avoid major emotional triggers (e.g., stay away from a class bully) or change a stressful situation (e.g., sit next to a teacher when the bully is around). But the real power comes in changing how she perceives the problem rather than changing the problem itself. With older children, cognitive-behavioural therapy can help reframe their worries or fears. But young children can simply try to redirect their attention when emotions get too intense. That might mean taking a short break to walk, play games, listen to music, read a book, etc. Or trying some mindfulness exercises and deep breathing to ground themselves and reset their brain. Or using sensory stimulation to let out emotions – e.g., clapping hands when excited, squeezing something when angry, or using a fidget toy when frustrated.
Most importantly, we need to create an emotionally-open home.
Children learn so much by watching and mimicking their parents, so your emotional-regulation strategies will influence your child. Also, children absorb parents’ emotions like a sponge, so it’s worth processing toxic emotions quickly to get them out of your child’s environment. (Have you noticed her raising her voice when you raise yours and lowering it when you do the same? That’s an example of how she feels what you feel.)
Some children need a little extra support in regulating their emotions, though. And the right specialist can help.
There’s so much that goes into a child’s emotional health – e.g., the challenges she faces, her coping skills, her energy levels, her support team, and more. So, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, do reach out to us for guidance. At The Ed Psych Practice, we offer face-to-face and online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem-solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and universities in London. We have psychologists, paediatricians, and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support. To consult with us or set up an appointment:
- Phone: +44 (0) 78 3344 7356
- Email: Office@TheEdPsych.com
Want to see how else you can help your child? You might enjoy some of our other posts.
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