Emotional Regulation

As behaviour analysts we are trained in how to assess and intervene behaviours that we can see and therefore measure. Thoughts and feelings are called ‘private events’ in the ABA world but we can’t see thoughts and feelings like we can hitting or kicking, so how do we go about helping children to manage their big feelings using ABA techniques??

Now more than ever we need to help our little people recognise their feelings and equip them with tools and coping strategies to manage them. It’s not an easy one…think about how many adults you know who still struggle with this!

As Behaviour Analysts, we are bound by a pretty strict code of ethics to stick to implementing strategies that are evidence-based; we only use techniques that have research to prove they actually work (which is why I love ABA!).

Our first job, whenever we are trying to work on tricky behaviours, is to describe behaviour in ways that are observable and measurable. We then usually take ABC data to figure out the function of the behaviour; the reason it’s happening or purposes it serves the child.

Are they upset because they can’t have something they want?? Or maybe they’re upset because you’ve told them to do something they don’t want to do.

Determining the function (or why the behaviour is happening) of the behaviour will give you a good idea of where to start; can you think of an alternative behaviour that you can teach your child to do instead but that also serves the same function?? E.g. rather than throw your toys or kick me when you feel angry, how about you punch this beanbag instead and tell me “I’m angry!”

Let’s take a look at some behaviour analytic strategies that are worth trying out with your child to help them regulate their emotions.

  1. Make it visual

Does your child actually know what “anxious” or “frustrated” mean? They might be able to recognise a happy and a sad face but what about a worried or a bored face? Or a scared face? Can they identify the sensations that goes along with those feelings and what they might look like on a person’s face e.g. a shocked person would typically have an open mouth, wide eyes and maybe bring their hands to their mouths whilst excitement might feel like there’s butterflies in your tummy. Have a chat with your child about sensations and see what they come up with for their big feelings. Using visuals can be handy when it comes to teaching feelings, depending on the age and skill of your child. You can use a visual of a stoplight with red, yellow, and green corresponding to different emotional states and if your child can read, you could write some options of coping strategies beside the colours.

  1. Model the behaviour you want your child to do

Modelling is a powerful teaching tool. Do LOTS of modelling; label your own feelings as well as your child’s and exaggerate your actions/facial expressions to catch your child’s attention. For example, when something happens to frustrate you, you could say something like, “I’m feeling so frustrated, I need to take some deep breaths and go for a walk.” Label your child’s feelings when it’s obvious how they are feeling e.g. “You’re feeling calm and relaxed, you look like you’re feeling green.” Or “You’re scrunching your fists, it seems like you’re heading towards yellow and feeling upset.” At this point, don’t place any demands on your child other than to tolerate you making the comments…and even that might be too much for them. Ultimately the goal is for your child to identify and label their feelings and associate them with a colour.

  1. Be proactive – not reactive

I think we are all guilty as parents for reacting to our child’s behaviour, rather than taking the time to actually be prepared. But think about it – how does it make you feel when you’re angry and someone says to you “calm down” or “relax”…you want to punch them in the face right?! When any of us are experiencing strong emotions often we’re not thinking straight and we do/say things we wouldn’t normally. This is not the time to try and turn the incident into a teaching moment. I repeat – do NOT try and teach your child in the heat of the fire! Instead, find a moment when your child is calm and turn this into a positive experience.

  1. Practise through role play

When you’ve caught your child in a good mood and they are nice and calm, role-play the behaviours that will help regulate his emotions.   This might take some persuasion as you both might feel a bit funny but by practicing the behaviours you want your child to do in the heat of the moment such as “taking deep breaths”, “counting to 5”, “going for a walk”, it will make them way more likely to actually do these things in the ‘big feelings moments’. As a parent it’s your job to test out a variety of options e.g. squeezing a stress ball, closing eyes, ripping up paper, cuddling a soft toy. See what works best for your child and make a note of it.

  1. Provide feedback!

Let your child know how they are doing. Remember; behaviours that come into contact with reinforcement increase – that’s the law of behaviour. So ensure that you reinforce behaviours such as ‘staying calm’ or ‘identifying and expressing feelings’. If your child loses the plot and forgets all the strategies (or chooses not to use them) have a chat with them after the incident when they have calmed down. Discuss how they can make a better choice next time.

  1. Always generalise…

And after all this hard work when you think you’ve earned your glass of wine there’s just one more thing…. It is definitely worth going that extra mile to set up practice situations in novel environments and with novel people so that your child can practice using the strategies and accessing reinforcement for the behaviours they’re displaying.

We want to use these strategies to teach our kids that whilst it’s okay to have strong feelings there are effective strategies to manage them and feel better. As parents it’s our goal to help our kids understand their feelings, express them appropriately, and then manage what to do with them. If your strategies are working, then you should see a decrease in negative behaviour and THEN you can pour yourself a glass of wine!

Good luck! You’ve got this!

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