Understanding emotional dysregulation in children is important for parents, caregivers, and educators.
Emotional dysregulation, also known as emotional instability or affective dysregulation, refers to the inability of a child to properly and effectively manage and respond to their emotions, leading to difficulty in regulating their emotional responses.
Emotional dysregulation can manifest in a range of different ways, including irritability, mood swings, and impulsive behaviour.
This condition is particularly important to address among children, as it can significantly hinder their emotional and social development, and parental figures play a crucial role in supporting and helping their children manage their emotions.
Dr Greg Pienaar, a renowned educational psychologist, and principal of The Bridge Assisted Learning School claims that many parents and educators struggle to determine whether a child’s behaviour is in line with expected developmental milestones or whether they have specific needs related to emotional regulation that calls for additional support.
He points out some signs that indicate a child has difficulty regulating their emotions, including:
∎ Not wanting to attend school at all, for instance, if a child routinely cries when it’s time to go to school.
∎ Being generally emotionally unhappy, where the unhappiness can’t be connected to a concrete issue.
∎ Losing interest in everyday activities which would interested the child before.
∎ Acting out by displaying negative behaviour which wasn’t in place before.
∎ Extreme anxiety (or possibly generalised anxiety) in other areas of the life of a child where there may not have been anxiety before.
∎ Becoming frustrated when a calmer, more reasoned approach would have been in place before.
∎ Becoming more sensitive to sensory stimuli.
∎ Struggling with separation anxiety.
There are various factors that contribute to the development of emotional dysregulation, including biological, genetic, and environmental factors.
Although, studies show that a child’s early experiences, including attachment, social interactions, and environment play an important role in establishing regulatory patterns that can impact the child’s development and mental health. Parental figures are a critical source of support to help children regulate their emotions.
Research also indicates that emotional regulation is not a skill that children automatically possess, but rather a learned behaviour that develops with their exposure to supportive and nurturing environments.
Therefore, it falls on parental figures to provide a safe and regulated environment for their children and equip them with the tools to recognise, manage and express emotions healthily.
Pienaar points out that parents can assist struggling children to cope with emotional dysregulation by providing routine and structure at home, ensuring consistency, providing clear expectations and boundaries, and also by providing safe spaces for regulation.
Parental involvement contributes significantly to supporting emotional regulation in children. Parents can engage in activities that stimulate emotional processing in their children, such as playtime and creative modes of communication.
Mindfulness training can also aid in the prevention and treatment of emotional dysregulation in children. Mindfulness allows children to develop self-awareness and regulation, which can help them to manage their emotions effectively.
Emotional dysregulation is an important factor in children’s emotional and social development, requiring support and understanding from parental figures.
By cultivating a nurturing and stable environment, advising on mindfulness exercises, and providing an open and communicative relationship with their child, parents can foster healthy emotional development and support their children to thrive.
Remember, emotional regulation is a skill that can be learnt and practised, and the journey towards it begins with support and understanding at home.
“Early intervention can help children develop the skills they need to manage their emotions effectively and improve their overall functioning. With appropriate interventions, children can learn to recognise and manage their emotions, understand and express their feelings in a socially appropriate way, and develop positive coping skills, while reducing the likelihood of more significant mental health issues developing in the future,” says Pienaar.