Emotional Regulation Skills to Help Manage Difficult Emotions

emotional regulation skillsIsn’t it great when life’s highs can trigger a fantastic feeling of dancing hand-in-hand with euphoria?

But it’s not too brilliant when life’s lows cause a spiral into an emotional meltdown.

Getting to grips with our positive and negative emotions can help us to navigate all kinds of situations in a balanced way.

Understanding how our emotions impact us, those around us, and how we interact with our social world requires the skill of Emotional Regulation (ER).

The problem is, our emotional triggers are a complex web of feelings, perspective, contexts, past experiences, and physiological reactions. Managing reactions to situations that rock our emotional status quo is challenging.

For those who struggle to navigate their way around how they emotionally react to their own emotions and those of other people, it can be devastating.

This article discusses evidence-based theory to clarify definitions, suggest practical strategies, and provide links to useful worksheets and exercises to support the development of emotional regulation skills.

5 Ways to Express and Identify Emotions

In positive psychology, emotional health is seen as a ratio of positive and negative (Vacca, Bromley, Leyrer, Sprung & Homer, 2014). Emotional Regulation (ER) is the route to keeping closer to the positive side of emotional health where and when possible.

Let’s take a look at how emotions are expressed and identified, and some ideas to increase those skills and help our emotions to become more positive. Basically, that means taking control of the balance between positive and negative (Dvir, Ford, Hill, & Frazier, 2014).

Before we get started, you might want to try this exercise on Expressing emotions wisely.

Dvir et al. explain that ER is shaped within our cultures and anchored in our past experiences. So, what we see as positive emotions can vary within cultures. And, just to add to the complexities, emotional expression is mostly based on brain mapping, with junctures and signs that link to experiences or feelings, memories, other people’s reactions to us. (Immordino-Yang, Yang & Damasio, 2016)

In addition, we need to add gender to the mix. Girls externalized more positive emotions to others but internalized negative emotions such as sadness and anxiety. This research also found that boys showed more emotions to others until they reached adolescence (Chaplin & Aldao, 2013).

So, how we express our emotions isn’t just down to us. Let’s think about using situational, institutional, and dispositional factors to help figure out how to identify our role in how we express emotions, with these questions:

  • What is the situation we find ourselves in, and what is our previous emotional experience of that situation?
  • What role might work/school play in the emotional reaction?
  • And, is there anything within our temperament that influences our emotional reactions?

An excellent skill to develop is to look more closely at an incident, ask yourself these questions, and write down your responses in the second line:

Situation Symptom Solution
What happened, where, and when? How did you physically feel during your anger and afterward? What did you do afterward? What could you have done to have a healthier outcome for everyone?
| | |

 

If writing your responses down isn’t too enticing, have a look at this idea of using coloring-in for gaining emotional recognition, definition, and clarity.

Also, here is another tool to help you identify the positive emotions that you feel each day.

 

Top 3 Emotional Intelligence Activities

Emotional Intelligence (EI) consists of emotion perception, emotion expression, emotion attention regulation, emotion understanding, emotion regulation of self, and emotion regulation of others (Elfenbein & MacCann, 2017). Let’s look at how we can build this skill through an exercise.

Have a go at these great tools from our Toolkit, such as  The Emotion Meter, that will help with self-reflecting on Emotional Intelligence.

You can also test your level of EI with this 2-minute quiz.

 

Did you identify any Emotional Intelligence skills that you may need to tweak and others of which you are rightfully proud?

If you enjoyed these exercises, head on over to our article with additional Emotional Intelligence Tests and Assessments.

 

Our Favorite Activities for Toddlers

Oh, those toddler tantrums…

Keltner and Ekman (2015), psychologists who advised on the film Inside Out, about a young girl trying to find her way through a difficult time in her life, explain:

“… the truth is that emotions guide our perceptions of the world, our memories of the past and even our moral judgments of right and wrong, most typically in ways that enable effective responses to the current situation.”

However, that type of guidance is not much help for a 2-year-old. So, visual tools can be quite helpful here. You can make your own emotion flashcards, for example. Or, there are many on the market to buy.

You can also make or buy a chart to help support emotional regulation. This chart can be a rainbow or ladder with pictures of faces that include unhappy, angry, frustrated, confused, and happy. Show the emotion ladder to the toddler as an intervention tool between you, the toddler, and the meltdown, by focusing on what could help the pointer move to the happy face.

But toddlers will also watch and learn how they are expected to react emotionally from us, their adults. If their adults keep calm in an emotional situation, such as bad news, this can help a child learn not to panic too easily (Crespo, Trentacosta, Aikins, Wargo-Aikins, 2017). The converse is also true; a parent shouting, screaming, and thumping walls, teaches a child how to respond to stress or not getting their way.

Face-to-face chats with toddlers aren’t too successful for obvious reasons. So, flip it in favor of sitting together and drawing pictures, painting, coloring, reading stories, writing stories, watching children’s TV and films, and talking about the characters’ emotions.

These visual and interactive strategies help children to develop and regulate their emotions.

 

8 Activities For Children and Students

Children learn names for emotions from other people’s use of words. By reinforcing appropriate pairings of emotion-adjective, the higher the level of emotional communication and our recognition of the emotions of others too.

Have a look at this clip:

 

Where children and their parents/carers are struggling with behavior issues, it is vital to be aware of patterns of emotional reactions of the adults around them to different situations (e.g., stress, confusion, and fear).

This helps us understand and increase ER:

  1. Recognize the unhealthy response of both child and parent.

  2. Understand when these incidents happen and think about the consequences of anger and frustration on various occasions.

  3. Don’t suppress the emotion – develop the skill of early recognition and change to a more positive emotional reaction.

  4. So think – how can I solve this in a positive way? (This can turn anger into a positive emotion and breaks and change the pattern of reactive behavior in parent-child battles.)

  5. Teaches the child that there is another way to respond. (practice, practice, practice)

To be able to manage anger, it’s important to grab it before it runs away. You can use this Red Light – Anger! exercise to help.

The good news is, unlike adults, children haven’t had too much time to become stuck in emotional memory banks. Their adults can help them to navigate emotions and develop a knowledge of feelings, words, and skills to help them when they have negative emotions.

This helps increase emotional self-awareness. Have a look at this worksheet on Self-Awareness.

Once we can use self-awareness, we can reflect. Reflecting on what happened and what could have made the outcome more positive is useful too.

Cognitive reappraisal is a promising type of emotion regulation because it is a particularly effective strategy for down-regulating negative emotion.” (Troy, Wilhelm, Shallcross, & Mauss, 2010)

The following activity works well in supporting the development of ER. For the best results, only allow the child to answer, rather than shaping their responses.

  • List healthy foods that you can eat.
  • How does healthy food make you feel, and what does it do to your body?
  • List unhealthy foods that you can eat.
  • How does unhealthy food make you feel, and what does it do to your body?
  • What is a healthy eating strategy?
  • Allow the child to define healthy and unhealthy actions clearly.
  • List an unhealthy way to deal with someone being nasty to you.
  • How will that make you feel?
  • List a healthy way to deal with someone being nasty to you.
  • How will that make you feel?
  • Now talk about making healthy choices (any ER topic can be used.)

Recognizing healthy and unhealthy emotional coping strategies is an incredibly useful skill for children, both with ER and other social, psychological, and health-related issues.

The film ‘Inside Out’ is now being used as a resource in many US and UK schools to help with emotional literacy and ER.

And looking at emotions from the inside and the outside is a great way to help children put words, feelings, and emotions together more effectively. Try this Inside and Outside Worksheet.

During adolescence, a mixture of physiological changes to the developing brain and a need for social independence make ER a difficult skill to develop for some adolescents.

Research into ER in adolescents has identified a set of strategies that are commonly agreed upon as negatively impacting on emotional regulation.

“…distraction; suppression; venting; cognitive reappraisal; downward social comparison; problem-directed action; self-reward; physical manipulations and withdrawal” (Strauss et al, 2016).

Strauss and colleagues found that measuring levels of gratitude, helping others, and expressing positive and negative emotions, was a useful base for building ER skills. A recent online survey of students showed that they struggled to share feelings of sadness, shame, fear, love, and anger (Karibayeva & Lowley, 2019). Identifying and addressing these negative emotions is a wonderful ER skill to take into adulthood.

This Skills for Regulating Emotions worksheet offers clear strategies for learning to regulate emotions.

 

Exercises for your Group Sessions

While working on an individual basis, or in a one-to-one with a therapist is a great method to increase ER, developing ER as part of a group can also be useful. Here is a group work exercise for groups of 4 – Decoding Emotions by Analyzing Speech, Body, and Face.

Research has found that group skills training can encourage discussion about negative emotions (Holmqvist Larsson, Andersson, Stern & Zetterqvist, 2019). Also, group discussions can help to increase emotional clarity and can reduce stress (Butler et al., 2018).

Here is a group exercise from our Toolkit – Window of Tolerance – for increasing healthy coping strategies and reducing stress and anxiety.

Group strategies are incredibly handy too, when emotions are used to reinforce unhealthy behaviors negatively—for example, using food to control those emotions (Micanti et al., 2016), being overweight/overeating (Houben, Dassen & Jansen, 2016).

And more good news, Rosen et al. (2019) found that children with ADHD were more likely to recall negative emotions and feelings of frustration when they talked through a real-life-event than children without ADHD. A 12-week group treatment session on managing frustration was successful for a group of 9-11-year-old children with ADHD.

 

A Look at 4 Useful Activities for Autism Spectrum Disorder/Condition

Emotion Regulation for AutismUsing self-reflective methods for increasing ER is not always possible, and tapping into a level of self-awareness is not available to everyone.

ER in Autism can prove a difficult concept for many of those affected. Social impairment can be a huge barrier to being able to communicate emotions. This is called alexithymia.

Many behavior difficulties in children with autism spectrum disorder/condition happen when there is a conflict between understanding emotional thoughts and feelings and their impact on how others react (Berkovits, Eisenhower & Blacher, 2016).

Research suggests that finding ways to recognize emotions and effective ways to communicate them increases ER (Morie, Jackson, Zhai, Potenza, & Dritschel, 2019).

Recognizing emotions can happen in lots of different ways:

  • You can use other senses and methods to identify and become more aware of them.
  • You can make them into shapes using play clay.
  • You can draw them.
  • You can use social stories to give examples of them.
  • You can give them names.
  • You may turn them into sounds, smells, or types of weather.

An Emotional levels chart for autistic children can be extremely useful.

ER is difficult for many children and adults with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). In part, this is linked to understanding the emotions of others. Here are a few ideas on how to understand what empathy is; you don’t have to feel it, sometimes just knowing it can help.

Also, games have been designed to help strengthen and increase emotional health. For further reading, this PDF explains the benefit and methods of Designing Games for Emotional Health.

 

Effective Emotion Communication: 5 Activities

Establishing that an individual approach to ER is essential makes sense. How do you feel when your partner walks away from the relationship? Or, when someone tells a lie about you? Is it the same as me? Very likely not.

We communicate and experience emotions differently. We feel them differently. How well an intervention works, or doesn’t, depends on those individual differences being explored (Antoine, Dauvier, Andreotti & Congard, 2018).

Some of us can effectively communicate our emotions, while others might avoid letting anyone know what they are feeling. Working through emotional avoidance is essential for a healthy ER. Here’s a tool to help identify some of the avoidance strategies that are used.

How we communicate our emotions to others is a massive factor in how well they receive us. And understanding what others are attempting to convey to us is vital to reduce emotional communication breakdowns.

Here’s a useful approach:

 

For more ideas, chat with people who have tried ER, for themself or their child, find out what worked for them, and how effective they found the intervention (Antoine et al., 2018). This ‘chat and learn’ can also help you decide what to put in your ER toolbox and what you can throw out. Here are a few to put in there:

 

3 Fun Artistic and Creative Exercises

The more fun you can have while increasing ER skills, the better. Developing ER can be lots of fun. Music, games, creative arts, puppets, balloons, board games, charades, and even soap operas and sports stars can be good mediums to help both adults and children identify, recognize and begin to regulate their emotions.

Here are a few ideas:

You can find even more in our article Emotional Intelligence Activities & Exercises.

 

Choosing Healthy over Unhealthy Emotional Regulation Skills

Here are some ideas to get started and help with deciding what are the healthy skills to pop into that toolbox:

  • Chatting with friends
  • Exercising
  • Therapy
  • Writing in a journal!
  • Charting symptoms, situations, healthy solutions
  • Getting adequate sleep
  • Visual Aids
  • Meditation
  • Mindfulness
  • Noticing when you need a break – and taking it
  • Taking care of yourself when physically ill
  • Paying attention to negative thoughts that occur before or after strong emotions
  • Not beating yourself up but moving forward in an emotionally healthy way

And what can you throw out? Well, for starters, abusing alcohol/substances, using food to regulate emotions, other self-injury practices, avoiding or withdrawing from difficult situations, physical or verbal aggression, and excessive social media use, to the exclusion of other responsibilities (Rolston & Lloyd-Richardson, 2015).

 

PositivePsychology.com Emotional Intelligence Resources

The Emotional Intelligence Masterclass© is a complete, 6-module emotional intelligence training template for helping professionals. With science-based backing, this course provides you as a practitioner with all the materials you need to deliver high-quality training sessions.

Not only will you become a master of the six pillars of emotional intelligence, but you will also be proficient in teaching and implementing it, whether it is in your class or your workplace. This is a highly acclaimed course. If you are specifically working with challenging teens or Autism, this is the perfect course to teach you how to implement Emotional Regulation Skills.

From the PositivePsychology Toolkit, you can also access the Coping Exercise – When Hot Buttons Are Pushed; a mindfulness intervention – Distinguishing Physical from Emotional Hunger as well as a Relationships Exercise – Creating a Hugging Habit.

 

A Take-Home Message

Emotional Intelligence is made up, in part, of the level of Emotional Regulation that an individual can exercise. But many factors and barriers can limit how effectively an individual can regulate emotions and emotional reactions.

Raising awareness of the many influences of what ER is considered to be is complex, with factors such as gender, culture, and past experience all playing a role, alongside learning difficulties and mental illness.

Self-reflection is key to tapping into the skill of ER, with the ability to identify, express, and navigate emotions. Developing an awareness of when and how we use our feelings, being able to name them and define them to yourself and others is an excellent place to begin to increase ER levels.

The ER worksheets and skills-based activities included in this article will help to form a toolbox of strategies that can be used on an individual basis or within group work.

And finally, take on the challenge of improving your ER skills. They are a lifelong tool to help you through many of life’s events and situations. So, live long and prosper in a healthy way alongside all of your emotions.

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