By: Laura Petix, MS OTR/LEPISODE 15

Today we’re going to focus on self-regulation. For the purpose of this podcast episode, I’m referring to the ability of an individual to independently (with the use of tools, but not dependent on another human at least) regulate their emotional and/or sensory needs. So emotional and sensory is what I’m talking about.

I want to remind you that I like to keep episodes under 20 minutes, so this doesn’t afford me the opportunities to dive deep into the complexities of this topic, so it is a bit watered down. It’s the need-to-know take away information. 

What is Self Regulation?

So let’s talk about sensory self-regulation…for example,  the ability to self-regulate when you are wiggly or can’t focus could mean you getting up to stretch in the middle of a long lecture or meeting you’re in.

You can do this independently without having to ask your partner or your boss for help. You can also do this in the moment that it’s needed- not when it’s so after the fact that you’ve already missed the entire meeting because you didn’t self-regulate earlier. 

On an emotional level, self regulation is referring to an individual’s independent ability to be able to have control of their actions, despite having strong emotions. So notice I’m not saying it’s someone’s ability to “stay calm” or to “not get mad” or even to “be happy”.

Everyone’s entitled to their own feelings, big or small, but NOT screaming profanities at your partner for forgetting to take out the rash for the 13th time requires some self regulation. To self regulate, you’d need the ability to have those emotions, be aware of those emotions, and express them in a way that isn’t harmful to yourself or others, i.e. have a civil conversation with your partner respectfully.

Sensory and emotional regulation can definitely overlap because sensory and emotion go hand in hand. Now, both sensory and emotional regulation are skills that I know many adults are still trying to fine tune, so I don’t expect this of our young children… but we do want to provide them the tools early on so they have a lot of repetitions and practice throughout their childhood. 

My daughter’s self regulation journey

So this topic actually came to mind because I’ve been talking a lot with my therapist and even a friend of mine about how Liliana’s anxiety comes in bursts and cycles and how she still has such a short fuse and can be pretty moody some days. But I was pointing out that I have noticed an improvement in her co-regulation skills, and she seems to be on the brink of some emerging emotional self-regulation skills. 

So right now when Liliana’s about to have a meltdown or she’s starting to escalate from her anxiety or big emotions, she will just scream at me, “CAN YOU HELP ME TAKE DEEP BREATHS!?” Like, she’s already dysregulated because she’s screaming it, but she’s very clearly asking me to co-regulate with her, which is AMAZING. 

My daughter’s favorite way to do deep breaths: 5 finger tracing

Sometimes she’ll even be in such a state of feeling out of control that she’ll demand I take deep breaths FOR her. Which, I mean… I get what she means… she’s just like, “please help me calm down, I can’t do it, can you do it for me.” It really is sad to see her like that but also again… huge progress from where we came from.

I’d say this ability for her to know what she wants and ask for it during the time of dysregulation is new, within like the past 3-6 months. Before this, I needed to prompt her with “I see you’re getting frustrated, what do you need from me?” And before that, I needed to tell her what I think she needed, like “Your body is moving fast and hard. Do you want to take deep breaths?”. 

So essentially we’ve moved from:

Me telling her what she needs, to me asking her what she needs, and now she’s at the step where she can tell me what she needs on her own.

I’d say the next step is her independently getting the thing that she needs or doing the thing that she needs to do independently. But again… she’s 4. I’m completely happy with staying where we’re at right now and I’m fully on board with continuing to help her co-regulate in this way. 

Now I do want to stress, again, this telling her what she needs/asking what she needs/ all of this verbal check in happens usually when I can see her start to escalate into a meltdown or having some emotional explosion… I know her mannerisms and tone of voice and can count down 3-2-1 to the start of a meltdown. I don’t do this kind of verbal language and talking during a full-blown meltdown. I try to find my window before and get in that way. Some days, there was no window and it went straight to meltdown. 

But the important part that I want to share with you is how we got through those first phases when she didn’t know exactly what her body needed. To be honest, I think she wasn’t even ready to do those things that her body needed. 

Using deep breathing for emotional regulation

So when she used to have these big emotions (not necessarily full meltdown, but big emotions on the brink of a meltdown), I used to say, “take deep breaths” and she’d yell, “I don’t want to be calm!” or “I want to be mad!” She was associating taking deep breaths with me trying to calm her down or trying to completely negate/invalidate her feelings. And, I don’t blame her. 

I always talked about taking deep breaths in the context of feeling angry or frustrated. So I started priming her and telling her (outside of meltdowns), “You can be as mad as you want. You don’t have to be calm, but you do need to be safe.” The more I repeated “you can be mad” or “you can be sad”, it’s like a wall came down. It helped a LOT. 

The other piece was me not stressing the “calm down” part, because it really seemed to aggravate her more, which again, I totally get, I’m the same way. Sometimes I want to vent about things without someone telling me to calm down or that “it’s not a big deal”. 

We all want to get our feelings out and to be heard. With our kids, this usually looks like screaming and crying, which we would like to help change to talking about it more. 

So the more I kept talking about this and showing her I can accept her emotions, the more she was open to my suggestions of taking deep breaths. And we practiced deep breaths at times outside of meltdowns and in contexts other than having these huge emotions. 

What I did was link deep breaths to the objective, measurable sensation of her heart rate, and then linked heart rate to being in or out of control of your body. And when you’re in control of your body, you can play longer, have more fun, spend more time with mom & dad, etc. 

So we did things like run around, do jumping jacks, jump on the bed, then place our hands on our hearts and notice how fast our heart was beating. Then, we took 5 very deep inhales in and 5 slow breaths out and noticed how much slower our heart was beating. We did this kind of exercise a few times and just left it at that, no mention of emotions. But then when I would get mad or frustrated, I would very loudly narrate “I’m feeling so frustrated right now… feel my heart! It’s beating so fast!” and she’d feel my heart… then I’d say “what was that trick we do again? How do I get my heart beat to slow down?” and she’d say “take deep breaths!” 

So she led me through it, and we’d measure my heart rate again and I’d talk about how I still felt frustrated but my body felt more in control now. So you have to be very explicit and outwardly narrating when you’re modeling this because it’s an internal process that you need your child(ren) to witness. 

Now the key is, I didn’t just do this exercise and lesson once and was done with it. I was like a broken record, we did this kind of stuff (and I still do sometimes bring it back) often, and a lot of it was between the meltdowns (not just during). And to be honest, once I was able to link the heart rate to being in control of your body… and also showing her that emotions are OK but unsafe, out of control actions aren’t, I saw a lot of progress. 

No, I didn’t see less meltdowns (that’s not our goal anyway)

Now, she’s still an anxious child, she still has huge emotions but again… seeing her get to this point where she now asks me to take deep breaths with her instead of completely fighting it is huge.

So…here’s my take away, and how you can apply this in your life.

How to start building emotional regulation skills

You have to find that one regulating thing (whether it’s sensory or emotional) that you can do with your child that not only regulates them but is something that they could eventually be able to do on their own. All you need is ONE thing and usually it’s something simple. Some examples are- deep breaths, wall pushes (where they try to push a wall down), hand pushes where they literally just push their hands against eachother, or any other form of heavy work. It could be ANYTHING but it should be pretty impactful on calming their nervous system. 

Once you find that one regulating thing… start talking about it outside of the meltdowns/emotions/sensory behaviors and talk about it in a completely neutral context or at least not in a negative context like only using it when your child is angry.

Find something that you can objectively measure before and after trying that regulating strategy. Heart rate seems to be the easiest thing to test and measure, but you could do other things like body temperature or muscle tension. 

Then you want to link it, e.g. when you’re mad or frustrated and have a body out of control, you: have a fast heart rate, your face gets hot, your muscles are tight. When your body is calm and in control, your heart rate is slower, your face isn’t hot and your muscles are relaxed.

Then link the sensory strategy and very clearly draw a link between the sensory strategy and how it can impact that heart rate, breath rate, muscles, etc. 

And tada- you have self regulation! Hahah okay just kidding.. It’s not quite magic and there are definitely ups and downs to our journey. 

And we have a long road ahead of us, but I know that some of you are still at the very beginning and I wanted to give you the roadmap of how we got here.

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Laura Petix, MS OTR/L

I’m an enneagram 6, so my brain is constantly moving. My OT lenses never turn off and I can’t “un-see” the sensory and other developmental skills that go in to literally every activity. I love taking what I see and breaking it down into simple terms so parents can understand what goes into their child’s behavior and skills.

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