Emotional regulation is the ability to monitor one’s emotions and behavior, control impulses and behave within a socially accepted manner in response to external or internal stimulus. It is a complex process that children, especially those with emotional or developmental differences, often struggle with. When a child becomes emotionally dysregulated due to a triggering event, it becomes difficult (nearly impossible) to relate or reason with them. Let’s explore what we can do in our child’s moments of emotional dysregulation by following Dr. Perry’s 3 R’s – Regulate, Relate, Reason.
Step 1: Regulate
It is important to understand why regulation must be the first step towards calming a triggered and upset child. The brain organizes from bottom to top, with the lower parts of the brain (survival brain) developing earliest and the cortical areas (thinking brain) much later.
Before a child is capable of emotional relation or cognitive reason, the lowest parts of the brain must first be regulated. During this stage focus on soothing the child. Make them feel calm, loved, and safe. Here are some ways to help a child regulate:
1. Keep emotionally calm to avoid reinforcing challenging behaviors
2. Practice deep breathing or counting to 10
3. Utilize sensory tools such as stress balls, headphones, or weighted blankets
4. Provide a safe space for the child away from noise and commotion
Step 2: Relate
Once the child has begun to calm down you can try relating to the child. Speak in calm, short sentences, as lengthy monologues can quickly become overwhelming and re-trigger their stress response. You can validate their feelings with your words and tone of voice. “I know you’re upset right now.” “You really wanted to stay longer.” “This is very hard.” Right now, the focus is on just connecting with the child and giving words to their big feelings. Taking the time to drops down to meet the child on eye level can also help the child feel heard and seen.
Step 3: Reason
Once a child feels safe and connected, they can fully engage in learning and reflection. A calm child is more likely to have the mental capacity to reason with you, take directions, and respond appropriately – they can use the higher thinking portion of their brains. Now would be the time to talk about alternatives to behaviors while reinforcing limits you set before.
“Relationships are the agents of change and the most powerful therapy is human love.” – Bruce D. PerryBruce D. Perry, The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog: And Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook