Kids with ADHD and other neurological differences face challenges with emotional regulation skills. Learn basic strategies that you can implement today.
Emotional Regulation describes the process of how we manage our everyday emotions in a socially appropriate way.
Our basic emotions or feelings are essentially organic in nature. They happen because of who we are as individuals. And, they arise spontaneously as we encounter the people, places and things of everyday life. We don’t actually control the emotions as they happen. But the way we respond to those emotions is the part that we can work to control.
Children with ADHD, sensory processing issues and other neurological differences often face challenges with emotional regulation.
And, kids with ADHD can experience emotions more intensely than kids without ADHD. This level of intensity combined with impaired working memory and/or difficulty controlling impulsive actions and behaviors can quickly lead to emotional disarray. This may manifest as tantrums and ugly meltdowns. Or, it may show up as hurtful words and injurious actions. Overall, emotional regulation can be a difficult and continuing challenge for ADHD families to manage. And these same issues can lead to impaired social skills for ADHD kids and poor social relationships.
Here are some basic strategies, tips and tools that parents can start implementing today without any special training or background.
Related Content: How To Make A Simple Sensory Diet: A Practical Guide For Parents
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1. Cultivating Emotional Regulation Skills Through Color Mapping
Learning how to identify and name one’s own feelings can be a critical first step in learning how to regulate them.
One of the easiest ways to start teaching kids to identify and discuss their own emotions is by associating them with colors.
Conventional wisdom, back by some studies and experts, suggests that people have a natural tendency to associate certain colors with moods and emotions. It can be a simple matter to build upon these basic tendencies to link colors and emotions to help kids learn.
Child development expert Maureen Healy, the award-winning author of Growing Happy Kids, and The Emotionally Healthy Child, notes: “The connection between colors and feelings is probably the most simple and profound. I would suggest even more powerful for young children without the words to convey their feelings.”
Zones of Regulation
One extremely popular approach for mapping colors on to emerging emotional regulation skills is The Zones of Regulation approach.
The Zones of Regulation framework categorizes commonly experienced moods and feelings into four concrete colored zones. The four colors are blue, green, yellow and red. Broadly speaking, in this system, the colors translate like this:
- Blue Zone (rest) = sad, tired, bored, sick
- Green zone (go) = listening mode, calm, happy, peaceful
- Yellow zone (slow down) = silly, frustrated, hyper, not listening, upset
- Red zone (Stop) = angry, yelling, mad, destructive, hurtful to self or others
You can also use a simpler version of color mapping with the traffic light system that we see everyday.
For either of these approaches, you can purchase visual tools commercially. Or, you can make your own version. This could even be a fun craft activity to do with your child. For example, the stoplight chart above was made using basic construction paper and refrigerator magnets. Compare to the more elaborate examples below.
2. Practice Right-Sizing Problems
Part of developing strong emotional regulation skills requires learning the difference between minor problems and catastrophes. And then, having the ability to express appropriately measured responses based on the magnitude of the problem. These can be challenging distinctions for ADHD kids.
These are some basic examples of “how big is my problem” posters that you can make or adapt for your family.
You can also use this free downloadable printable chart and activity kit to practice exercising these emotional regulation skills.
3. Turbo-Charged Exercises For Better Emotional Regulation
Improve Emotional Regulation In Just 7 Minutes Per Day
This post from Nicole Day sets out a morning exercise regime that you do with your child. It’s based on the idea that a structured session of intense activity has immediate positive benefits. And, those benefits will continue to resonate throughout the day. These simple exercises do not require any special equipment.
Although not specifically discussed, this short routine seems like a strategy you could also employ later in the day if you need a reset. For instance, after school.
4. Drive Down Sesame Street For Help With Emotional Regulation Skills
Did you know that you can use Sesame Street as a tool to help your child with emotional regulation?
S is for Self-Regulation: Lessons in ADHD Emotional Control from “Sesame Street”
Sesame Street proactively teaches self-regulation through stories featured on the show. The show places favorite characters in real world type situations where they have to use emotional regulation tools. The show also features age appropriate self-regulation strategies and exercises that kids can implement themselves.
And, in addition to the regular television show, Sesame Street sponsors a website that publishes great activities, tools, videos and printables to help teach your child about emotions. And they are all FREE!
Go check out these free printables:
- -feelings tic-tac-toe
- -talking about feelings (a coloring page)
- -feeling faces
- -an act-along story
Also check out the free resources on the “tantrums” page.
5. Great Books That Support Emotional Regulation Skills
You can also help teach your child emotional regulation skills using appropriate children’s books. Books can be a jumping off point for a personalized discussion by relating situations in the stories to situations that your child has faced. You can also use books to help your child role play responses and actions for expected future situations.
Self Regulation Picture Books
This great collection of picture books compiled by a teacher provides a terrific starting point.
6. The Family Game Hour
You can practice and improve basic emotional regulation skills by playing fun family board games.
Best Games for Developing Executive Function and Self-Regulation in 5-7 Year Olds
List of fun family games compiled by a developmental psychologist that help promote emotional regulation. Parents will find this list particularly helpful because the games can be enjoyed by all members of the family, not just the little ones. And, as an added bonus, these games do not require significant reading skills.
7. Parent-Led Coaching
How Can We Help Kids With Self-Regulation?
It can be tough finding the right balance between proactively acting to regulate your child’s emotions and helping him to develop the skills to regulate his own emotions. The ultimate goal should be to help your child develop his or her own effective strategies for self-regulation. According to Dr. Rouse of the Child Mind Institute, when parents constantly intervene to change the environment as a regulation strategy, a child can develop a habit of essentially outsourcing his self-regulation. Always seeking external sources of regulation rather than having her own grounded system to fall back on.
Instead, the Child Mind Institute endorses a “scaffolding” strategy for cultivating and promoting self-regulation. Through scaffolding, rather than avoiding difficult situations, the parent provides support and coaching to help child work through it. This article provides several examples of how this strategy can be applied in common situations. It provides helpful examples to parents facing problems with frustrating homework, transitioning away from video games, and public tantrums.
8. A Grab Bag Finale!
My Favorite Coping Skills for Dysregulated Children
This article from professional therapist Marianne Riley sets out some great regulation strategies using simple techniques for powerful results. Learn more about the five strategies of:
- Hot Chocolate Breathing
- “Take Me There” Pictures
- Draw “My Feelings”
- Play-Doh creations
And, finally, for more great Ideas for Teaching Children about Emotions, check out this extensive list of practical ideas from Georgetown University’s Center for Child and Human Development. The list contains 75 suggestions that can be naturally incorporated into your schedule. Although many of the ideas are geared for a classroom setting, the majority of the ideas can be used by parents and families at home and during play.