Helping Kids Feel in Control – Regulation Strategies

child shouting
In the days of shelter in place, it is important to recognize that children may be experiencing large and overwhelming emotions. Kids may need to learn how to regulate both their emotional and physical responses because they become intertwined when they go into “fight-or-flight” mode.

There are two types of regulation – mutual regulation (or co-regulation) and self-regulation. Mutual regulation means that your child needs YOU to help them regulate their emotions. When your child is upset, they may need you to help soothe them and calm them down. Self-regulation means that your child can calm down and cope with their emotions all on their own.

There’s a developmental trajectory of milestones that your child will meet as their self-regulation skills develop. First will be mutual regulation, with you responding to their cues. Next, they’ll initiate mutual regulation. Then, some self-regulation skills emerge with you modeling the right strategies. Overtime, as skills develop, your child will start being able to recover from meltdowns sooner and those meltdowns will be less intense.

Providing your child with concrete exercises (from both a physical and cognitive perspective) and allowing them to choose their “just-right” support helps ensure that they can self-regulate on an as-needed basis. At DPK, we utilize sensory-based physical strategies such as swinging, jumping, crashing, and breathing as well as cognitive strategies such as “the all done box” during our therapy sessions. As parents on the “front lines” at home, we hope to offer you some ideas that may work for those days when your little one is in need of some additional support.

Here are a few examples of related self-regulation strategies:

Finger Pulls
“Let’s try to get the yucky feelings out of your body. Put all those feelings into your fingers and then keep pulling until you pull them out of your body.”

  • Put one hand palm up, one hand palm down (both facing each other).
  • Intertwine fingertips together (except thumbs) and pull them apart as hard as you can.
  • Hold for as long as your body needs to (five to ten seconds, at least).

Worry Box
Find a box to use as the Worry Box. This is going to be a place where you are going to put away all of your worries, anything that you are afraid of, and lock it so that not even one tiny worry can escape.

Now, put every single drop of anything that’s worrying you right now into your Worry Box. Make sure to get it all! Now, carefully close the lid and lock it tightly. There we go. Now, those worries are locked away and can’t bother us; we don’t have to think about them anymore. They’re gone! You can also use this for an “All Done” box. If your child is having a hard time and keeps talking about something, you can put that in the “All Done” box and close the lid and tell them you aren’t talking about this anymore.

Breathe The Rainbow
Teaching your children to “breathe the rainbow” by taking slow deep breaths and thinking about their favorite things to match each color helps them slow their heart rate and relax their muscles. Practice this strategy when calm to increase effectiveness when anxious.

Feel Where Your Body Is
Progressive muscle relaxation: Most kids tense their muscles when feeling anxious. Many even hold their breath. A simple two-step process helps kids learn to use their muscles to relieve the physical stress they experience when anxious.

  1. Tense a specific muscle group (e.g. arms and hands or neck and shoulders) and hold for five seconds
  2. Release the muscle group and notice how you feel. Work head-to-toe to better understand all of the muscles affected by worries

Write out your Worries

  • Write and tear: Have your child write or draw her worries on a piece of paper, read them to you, and then tear them up and throw them away for the night. This helps kids say their worries out loud and let go of them.
  • Worry journal: Keeping a worry journal helps children see how their anxious thoughts improve over time. Writing the worries of the day followed by one positive thought helps break the cycle of negative thinking that can exacerbate anxiety.

Think of something that happened recently that may have made you feel frustrated, worried, angry or scared. You can say these to a rhythm as you clap your hands, say them as you march to music or whisper them while doing breathing exercises (on exhalation). Let’s practice saying a few mantras:

  • “Oh well, maybe next time!”
  • “No big deal!”
  • “I can try again another time!”
  • “I am awesome no matter what!”
  • “I am loved!”
  • “I am safe.”

Structure and Routines
Parents can help develop self-regulation through routines (e.g., set certain mealtimes, have a set of behaviors for each activity). Routines help children learn what to expect, which makes it easier for them to feel comfortable.

Sometimes stopping everything to give a hug and just take a minute to feel better is the best way to co-regulate. And then do something silly or something that makes you happy together. Blow bubbles, have a dance party, listen to your favorite song, walk outside, look at the stars. It’s okay to feel overwhelmed but help your child know that it will pass and you can move on together.

Rebecca Berry, MS, PT, Clinic Director
Becky has been an active pediatric physical therapist on the mid-peninsula since 1985, most recently as cofounder of Developmental Pathways for Kids in 1997. She received her Master’s Degree in Physical Therapy from the University of Southern California. For over thirty years, she has provided physical therapy evaluation and treatment for infants and children with mild to severe developmental delays. In addition to direct patient services, Becky has served as coordinator of a multidisciplinary pediatric team at Mills-Peninsula Hospitals and provided consultative services to schools throughout the Bay Area. Her expertise and areas of interest include Autism Spectrum and Sensory Processing Disorders as they relate to peer socialization and play. She has completed research on the DPK Model Combining Sensory Integration and Integrated Playgroups and is a conference presenter throughout the United States.

In her practice, she combines advanced training in NDT and Sensory Integration Theory and Practice as well as expertise in Integrated Playgroups, the ALERT Program, DIR/Floortime® and The Listening Program®. She has co-authored the book, Pathways to Play! Combining Sensory Integration and Integrated Playgroups and is the author of Hearts and Hands Together a story of inclusion.

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