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The Definitive Guide To Emotional Control (2023)

Updated: Apr 25, 2023


This is pink and purple image of a person exhibiting anxiety and the title "emotional control: a definitive guide"

Is your child struggling with throwing tantrums? Slamming doors? Yelling at you when you try to help with their homework?


Flat out refusal of your requests?


Do they have difficulty identifying emotions or challenges with self regulation?

In this article, I will help you identify issues with emotional control and provide you with strategies you can implement today. Help is out there!


Understanding how problems with emotional control present is the first step.

Before I walk you through how to identify issues of emotional control, here is what you will learn in this article.


In this article, we will cover:


What does emotional control look like?

Emotion control, or emotional regulation, is the ability to identify our emotional states and exert some control over big emotions that sometimes overwhelm us.


Examples may look like:

  • Focusing on reasons to be happy when you’re down (creating positive emotions)

  • Using an anxiety coping strategy such as deep breathing to stay calm

  • Verbally expressing feelings of frustration, anger, excitement and overwhelm

Two key skills that lead to being able to control your emotions are:

1) Recognizing when you are having an emotion

2) Naming or expressing your emotions


Acceptance of our emotions and being able to cope with negative feelings or unpleasant emotions are hallmarks of emotional regulation.


What is emotional dysregulation?

Emotional control is often referred to as emotional regulation or more broadly as self-regulation skills.


When a person lacks emotional control, it is often called emotional dysregulation.


A dysregulated person may exhibit impulsive behaviors or act from negative emotions rather than making rational decisions.


Disruptive patterns of emotional dysregulation are listed below:


Middle school:

  • Yelling in class when feeling frustrated with a peer

  • A student having emotional outbursts such as raising their voice when a parent asks them to do homework

High school:

  • Substance abuse when strong feelings occur, such as, feeling angry, depressed or stressed

  • Difficult emotions may give rise to self-harm behaviors

College:

  • Mental health issues can arise when controlling emotions continues to be an issue in young adulthood

  • Students may need to seek counseling such as dialectical behavior therapy to manage intense emotions


When we are in a highly emotional state, we may lash out at others. This can cause have a negative impact on relationships at home and at school.


Children with low emotional regulation may have fewer social skills and difficulty maintaining friendships.

Problems getting along with peers and with making and keeping friends, affect more than half of children with ADHD.

Issues with emotional control that go unsolved can have impacts later in life. Adele Diamond's study on the importance of ADHD showed the following:


A light blue list of different executive dysfunctions and the research basis
The ways in which executive functions are relevant to different areas of life


Good emotional regulation can be a predictor of academic success.

EFs predict both math and reading competence throughout the school years.

A person with challenges with their emotional control may experience:

  • Increased risk of school problems

  • Difficulties with peer rejection or bullying

  • Performance stress or test anxiety

  • Challenges with setting long term goals and resilience

  • Mood disruptions such as feeling intense anger

  • Mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression

Emotional control by age

Emotional control looks different depending on your age. Let’s explore what emotional regulation looks like by age:


Babies (0 - 24 months)

Starting in their first few months of life, babies are already learning to practice emotional control. Babies learn to transfer their attention from overwhelming stimuli and focus their attention on something they find soothing such as a pacifier or a toy.


Toddlers/Preschool (2-5 years)

We all know what an emotionally dysregulated younger child’s behavior often looks like:


That’s right, a tantrum! Tantrums are often reactions to uncomfortable emotions or needs that a child is unable to express.


Adults can assist children by helping them name their emotions and take deep breaths. Try not to show too much negative emotion during tantrums.


Planning predictable schedules and distraction can be effective strategies for toddler and preschooler age children.


School-aged children (5-10 years)

Young children show emotional well-being by:

  • playing well with others at the playground

  • being able to cope with unexpected situations

  • showing empathy or regard for the feelings of others

Validate their experience and allow your school-aged child to have the full range of their emotional experience. This will demonstrate their emotions are normal and okay.


Explicitly teach strategies such as “blowing out a candle” when taking a deep breath if they feel overwhelmed.


Preteens and Teenagers (10-18 years)

Although many teens and preteens have learned emotional regulation, they may act without thinking and having a strong emotional reactions.


Learning calming strategies is a crucial skill for many teens.


We can also support teens by:

  • Naming the emotions they are having. Prompt your teen to notice how a particular emotion feels in their body.

  • Supporting them in identifying causes of emotions. After they have calmed, help them problem-solve what they could do next time in a similar situation.


For every age…

Remember, every emotion is valid. That does not mean you have to validate every behavior.


If you need to leave the situation due to extreme behaviors, let the child know you will be nearby. When they are calm, let them know their behavior was not okay.


Instead of engaging in conflict, offer reassurance and help with problem solving.


This is a photo with 6 colored circles stating the things that emotional regulation helps us to do.
Emotional Regulation Benefits

Why is emotional regulation important?

Emotional regulation allows people to find a place of calm after negative emotions such as anger or frustration. Being able to control strong emotions helps us build interpersonal relationships and make good decisions in everyday life.


Emotional regulation helps us develop skills such as:

  • Getting along with others and socially acceptable behavior

  • Paying attention during tasks at school or work

  • Controlling impulses in healthy ways

  • Being flexible in our thinking

Regulating emotions has broader impacts for school and work success later in life. Good emotional regulation is correlated with positive outcomes in adulthood and general life satisfaction.


People who regulate emotions well demonstrate increased skills such as:

  • Engaging in goal setting

  • Delaying gratification

  • Frustration tolerance

  • Problem solving


It is easier to address emotional control challenges earlier rather than later in life. Helping a child develop emotional control will help them in adulthood.


But why do some people seem to be more prone to deficits in emotional regulation? Even when using a variety of strategies, some people struggle more in this area.


What causes difficulty with emotional control?

You may be wondering...are challenges with emotional regulation due to your child’s disposition or their environment?


Some children seem to be born with calm dispositions and low reactivity, while others seem to be more prone to tantrums and intense feelings.


Don’t worry! There’s good news...


While we all may be born with our own unique emotional disposition, managing feelings can be learned. Like learning to flex a muscle, learning to have a positive emotional response will happen naturally overtime the more you use it

How are executive function and ADHD related?

Kids who have a hard time with self regulation may also have difficulties with executive functioning skills.


Executive functioning skills are the organizing executors in the brain that help us manage our activities, plans and behaviors. The links between executive function and self regulation are far reaching.


Executive functioning involves working memory, attentional control and cognitive flexibility. To learn more about key executive function skills, check out the article, What are executive functioning skills?


Additionally, executive function challenges affect inhibitory responses. That means a person with lack of executive function may exhibit more impulsive behavior and fail to pause before they act.


Challenges with emotion regulation and executive function are also common with students with ADD/ADHD. See the article, ADHD vs ADD: which one does my child have?


In children with ADHD, it can be harder to manage emotions or pause to use a strategy.


Children with ADHD may need reminders to slow down and label their own emotions. They also benefit from extra support building resiliency.


How do you process your emotions in a healthy way?


The good news is, emotional control can be learned throughout our lives. By focusing attention on how emotions feel in our bodies, we can label our experiences and let the emotion run its course.


We should not fear big emotions but instead respond with patience and understanding. Pause quietly to hear your child and support them as they calm down. This is much more effective than having a big reaction.


Here are five ways to teach children emotional control:

  1. Model emotion regulation in the home. Adult modeling of self regulation is one of the most powerful ways children learn emotional control.

  2. Encourage children to identify and name both negative and positive emotions

  3. Teach children all emotions are valid and acceptable

  4. Make a “calm down toolbox” or a list of specific strategies such as deep breaths to address frequent big feelings

  5. Offer praise when your child uses a self regulation strategy


This is a green informational image with 6 bubbles giving specific strategies for emotional regulation.
Strategies for emotional regulation

Children learn emotion regulation by having caring and empathetic relationships. By remaining calm in the face of big emotions, adults can be role models. But don’t worry when you can’t do it all the time - modeling how to have resilience and to keep trying is just as important!


Skills and strategies to develop emotional regulation


Now that you know more about emotion regulation and how to support children in regulating their emotions, you can develop an emotional toolbox!


Keeping yourself regulated and emotionally attuned is one of the best things you can do to help your children in this area.

As an executive function coach (see more below), teacher and parent, I have seen first-hand the affects my own emotional health. When I feel overwhelming emotions, the children around me are more likely to react emotionally. It can become a domino effect of cascading negative emotions and cause unnecessary suffering!


There are many skills and strategies to manage our emotions, and here are some of my favorites:


  1. Notice your five senses - I use a countdown to remember (and make it into a game) although you can also find just one of each: find 5 things you see, 4 things you hear, 3 things you can touch, 2 things you smell and 1 thing you taste.

This is a pink image that describes a strategy to  use our five senses for emotional regulation
Five Senses for emotional regulation

  1. Mindfulness - Watching your emotions rise and pass away without letting them be in control is a powerful experience and can tame intense emotions. Progressive muscle relaxation can help as yo notice and relax individual muscles in your body.

  2. Positive self-talk - Notice when you’re talking to yourselves in unproductive or unkind ways. Turn it around by talking to yourself the way you would speak to a close friend - with empathy and compassion.

  3. Notice and reduce your triggers - Simply noting if there are certain times of day or previous events that often cause emotional upset can be helpful. If you are in a bad mood after a tough night of sleep, go easy on yourself in the morning. If certain environments feel triggering, try to moderate your time in those places.

  4. Give attention to the positive - Although there are many uncertainties in life, we often do have control over one thing - where we place our thoughts and attention. By highlighting the positive and cultivating gratitude for what we do have, we strengthen the mental muscle of positivity.


By training our minds and bodies to be more regulated and relaxed, we strengthen our brain's ability to find calm. Developing patterns of positive thinking and emotion regulation skills is a lifelong pursuit and now is a great time to start!

Use the worksheet below to engage students in recognizing and tracking triggers, negative emotions and positive ones:



Final Thoughts


While there is no one intervention or “cure” for every student with executive functioning challenges, schools and families can work together to build skills in these areas.


Try out some of the suggested strategies above with your students or child at home to help support their EF development. If you're still struggling, be sure to read our article: Executive Function Coaching -The definitive guide, and sign up for executive function coaching to make sure you get the help you need.


With a little extra effort and patience, you may be surprised at the progress they make.


About the author

Seanessy Gavin is an executive function coach and education specialist at EF Specialists. Parent of two rowdy boys, she loves the outdoors and anything that helps get energy out and playtime in. Seanessy practices and teaches mindfulness meditation and executive function strategies and believes they help you in all areas of life. In her leisure time, she enjoys playing music and singing, reading and camping under the stars.




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EFS started with one teacher deciding that kids with ADHD needed better access to quality executive function coaching services. Since then, we have grown to a team of specialists working both private students and public schools to enhance executive function skills for all students. 

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