Emotion Regulation in Children

Thursday, 16 Mar 2023

I have spent some time recently listening to one of my favourite podcasts by Tammy Lenski. More recently she had a focus on emotion regulation. Emotion regulation is the process of trying to control or change how we’re feeling. In conflict situations, we usually want to regulate unwelcome emotions like anger, frustration, aggression, contempt, anxiety, shame, fear, and hopelessness. Getting swamped by strong emotions feels lousy. And the overwhelm makes it hard to access our good communication and conflict resolution skills right when we need them most.

Out-of-control emotions can make smart people stupid.

One way we can help ourselves and others in moments like these is to take advantage of an emotion regulation technique that’s well-supported by research: Affect labelling.

Recognizing and naming an unwelcome emotion has a powerful effect on quelling it. Called affect labelling, the process is thought to engage our executive brain, transforming the emotion into an object of scrutiny and disrupting its intensity.

The idea certainly isn’t new — people have been trying to feel better by writing and talking about their feelings for centuries. But for the past two decades, researchers have been trying to understand whether or not putting feelings into words is genuinely beneficial for emotion regulation and why it works.

In research published in 2007, psychology professor Matthew Lieberman and colleagues concluded that affect labelling seems to diminish emotional reactivity. They noticed that when research subjects were asked to label a strong negative emotion, they showed less activity in the brain’s fear response centre — the amygdala, where fight-or-flight reactions originate — and greater activity in a brain region associated with vigilance and discrimination.

Putting negative feelings into words can help regulate negative experience.

Additional research in the years since has reaffirmed the benefit of affect labelling. In 2018, a group of researchers led by Rui Fan and John Bollen turned to Twitter to take affect labelling research out of the lab and into the everyday world. Fan and Bollen found that affect labelling had a rapid calming effect on negative emotions after “I feel…” statements.

Just saying the words “I feel bad” almost immediately brought emotions back down to the baseline.

 And research published in 2021 added a new twist: Affect labelling apparently can make us happier. After research participants viewed positive images (like cute puppies) and were asked to label their emotions, they actually felt more positive emotions. Affect labelling both dampens unwelcome emotions and heightens positive ones.

To affect label your own emotions, ask yourself this simple question:

How do I feel?

Lieberman suggested three ways to process this question: Think about it, write about it, or verbalize it. One author of the 2021 research cited above cautions that the technique works best when performed — saying the emotion out loud or writing it down.

People who write about intensely emotional experiences show improvements in objective measures of health. And writing is also a very effective way to boost your performance in pressure-filled situations.

To use this emotion regulation technique out loud, you don’t have to exit the difficult conversation. Instead, identify the emotion you’re experiencing and state it, like this: I’m feeling pretty frustrated right now.

The last thing someone angry wants to hear is another person judging them for their anger. So tread carefully when using this idea with someone else. The objective is to help them affect label as a way to regulate their strong emotion, not call them out.

I’m not a big fan of How does that make you feel? because it’s over-used and feels too therapy-like for some people. I prefer What emotion are you feeling right now? or How do you feel?

Perhaps try this with the argumentative types: There’s good evidence that saying out loud the emotion we’re experiencing helps us keep our balance better. So in that spirit, what are you feeling right now?

For many children, labelling their emotions is extremely difficult. They simply shrug their shoulders and do not emote. We use the Emotion Wheel in these circumstances such as the one below which gives them the chance to colour the emotions and identify them more accurately. You can find many variations of these and ones more compatible with younger children if you search for them – even pictorial ones.  

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