Emotional Regulation

Is your child having meltdowns?

Is your child:

  • Shutting down?
  • Being dramatic?
  • Acting like an emotional roller coaster?
  • Having meltdowns or sudden tantrums?
  • Displaying reactions that are way out of proportion to the situation?
  • Grumbling when asked to do something?
  • Being in time-out often?
  • Getting out of time-out and engaging in the same behavior as before?
  • Seeming to always be on the edge of tears?
  • Escalating quickly; going from 0-60 in ten seconds flat?


Some children appear to not be able to handle everyday life like other kids can. It seems like everything that happens impacts them much more than would be expected.

A simple splinter might lead to a day of screaming, crying, or even a trip to the doctor. Your child may see a dead animal on the side of the road and react with hysterics, being impossible to console.

It may seem like nothing you do makes your child happy. You may feel like you are riding a roller coaster as your child becomes frustrated and then quickly drops into a sense of despair and hopelessness or an angry tantrum.

The child may become easily annoyed and may seem to be overly reactive. It may be hard to get your child interested in activities or interests.

Alternately, your child may be so intensely interested that he is unable to ‘let it go’ when a special activity doesn’t go his way. If your child seems highly sensitive to events and other stimuli in the environment, it may be that emotional regulation is a problem for him or her.


Within the ‘executive functions,’ the term called ‘emotional regulation’ refers to one’s ability to manage strong feelings and to react appropriately to situations. The term emotional regulation can be defined as,

 “Self-regulation is a basic ability to manage emotions and control behavior” [8].

Recognized experts consider all executive functions to be like ‘air traffic control’ because your child has to monitor and direct all the ‘thought traffic’ in his or her mind. He has to think about hurt feelings, appropriate behavior, a noisy fan in the background, and an annoyingly itchy sweater; all whilst he is deciding whether or not to punch that kid on the playground who would not let him join the game.

For some children, these skills come more naturally. For others, extreme emotions take over, and it is very difficult for them to gain their composure and to return to functioning appropriately.

For toddlers, such ‘accidental’ or impulsive aggression is typical. Expert in child development, Toni Linder, Ph.D., describes the following developmentally typical trajectory for the ‘Regulation of Emotional States’:

  • 30 months: “May become aggressive in disputes with other children around possessions or interference with activities.” [6], p.183
  • 36 months (3 years): “Is able to talk about emotions and what elicits them. Is able to request adult’s help to handle emotions. May begin to recover from tantrums by him/herself.” [6], p.184
  • 48 months (4 years): “Occasional aggression with peers. May demonstrate extremes of emotions. Wants to feel in control, talks to self and others about feelings and how to feel better.” [6], p.184
  • 60 months (5 years): “Able to think about emotions and use discussion to help calm. Self-talk helps child control emotions” [6], p.185
  • 72 months (6 years): “Can moderate emotions in different situations as appropriate (e.g., church, playground). Can think about emotions and make conscious changes to responses.” [6], p.185

The guide above helps clinicians and parents to think about whether or not there is a delay in emotional regulation and associated development. As listed above, we do not expect toddlers to regulate emotions on their own.

They typically hit or bite each other when upset and cannot really understand a discussion about feeling states. Once the child reaches preschool (if starting at about 3 years of age), we would want to see them starting to talk to adults about their feelings and being able to recover from some tantrums on their own.

If your child is not doing so, the teacher may say something like, ‘he’s a melter’ or ‘he is having lots of tantrums.’ Often, preschool teachers can tell if this behavior is typical for a child that age, but if you are unsure, it is useful to talk to a developmental psychologist or pediatrician about these issues.

Once the child is about done with preschool (somewhere around 4 years of age), a child should be able to identify strong emotions and will begin to learn how to calm down when upset.

When the child approaches Kindergarten, or primary school at the age of 5, the child should be able to calm down successfully much of the time and can talk about feelings and coping skills.

Finally, by around first grade (about 6 years of age), a child should be able to manage most feelings successfully and can control emotional reactions to events in the environment. If your child is in primary school or beyond and is still having extreme emotional reactions coupled with poor coping skills or self-regulation strategies, he or she is showing a delay.

Challenges here could also be related to temperament. Temperament refers to our predisposition to personality characteristics. Temperament is present from birth, and every person will have a different style of temperament.

Most people have heard of introversion and extroversion referring to an individual’s social engagement style and comfort with large social gatherings, seeing these as energizing or exhausting. Other aspects of temperament may also impact mood.

Negative emotionality is an aspect of temperament that is often obvious earlier than many other aspects. Activity level and negative emotionality are generally the first signs of temperament that we may notice about our children. If your child just generally has a higher level of negative emotionality, it is not necessarily indicative of a disability.

It could be that parenting with a focus on behavior management and instituting positive reinforcement and reward will work. This process may need to be approached more carefully than your friends approach their own children. Some children are much harder to parent than others.

It is possible if a child is particularly moody or dysregulated that a disability could be present. Clinically we must consider, is this a delay, a temperament issue, or are we seeing symptoms of a disability that may include a depressive disorder, an anxiety disorder or an autism spectrum disorder?


Consider how much these symptoms are getting in the way of your child’s happiness. If a delay as described above is present, think about why. For a Gifted child, a delay in emotional regulation often occurs because of the inherent intensity and sensitivity of the gifted mind.

If you think your child may be gifted, it might be worthwhile to consider an IQ test by a School Psychologist or Licensed Psychologist. Your community may have gifted programs or associations that can help you manage his or her gifted needs.

If the symptoms are milder, start with some parenting approaches meant to help support the development of self-regulation strategies. Dr. Siegel offers a myriad of brilliant strategies to help your child learn to self-regulate [7].

Dr. Siegel teaches that your child’s emotions are regulated in the ‘downstairs brain,’ which is the part of the brain that is built for survival and engages in the ‘fight, flight, freeze’ responses. When your child is in the downstairs brain, no amount of talking, negotiating, or heaping on of punishments will alter his or her behavior.

It is time to model calm behavior and nurture your child’s calming strategies. Then, and only then, you can begin to process what has happened with your child, and this processing will begin to grow the upstairs brain, where executive functions such as planning and problem solving reside.

At home, keep in mind these ‘do’s and don’ts.’ Don’t allow your child to engage you in a power struggle. Do let her know calmly that you’re happy to talk if she asks in a neutral or positive tone; don’t respond to rude language.

Don’t tell your child how to feel or discredit or deny any emotions. Do validate and reframe. If your child says “I hate my life.” Don’t say “Your life is wonderful. Do you know how lucky you are? Children are starving in the world.”

Do say, “It sounds like you had a terrible day. I’m here if you want to talk.” Encourage your child to find and to engage in coping strategies, which are activities that he or she finds relaxing or enjoyable.

These strategies could be exercise, listening to music, reading a good book, drawing or writing, having a mug of tea or cuddling with the cat.

Do help your child identify mood states and notice when it is a good time to take a break and to do something to help him or her feel better. Apps for our phones that provide guided meditation and mindfulness practice can help children manage mood symptoms with breathing, progressive muscle relaxation and meditation.

Consider yoga if your child enjoys relaxation and wants to learn more ways to relax their muscles and to use breathing to remain calm.

Do read about feelings. A good book for a child having temper tantrums is “Soda Pop Head.” The book describes a child who is always about to ‘blow his lid’ over incidents with peers and siblings. He learns to use strategies like deep breathing and the ‘push, pull, dangle’ muscle relaxation strategy to calm down.

As he calms himself, he lets a little pressure out of the ‘bottle’ so he does not blow his lid. Reading this book can be a good way to ‘externalize’ the blame and treat this problem as something that many people struggle with and can work to improve [11].

If, however, your child’s rapidly shifting emotional state is getting in the way of school performance, friendships, and overall happiness, it may be necessary to consider an evaluation.

It may be that your child has a disability, such as autism, depression, or anxiety that are essentially ‘disabling’ their self-regulation functions. Resources are provided below in the ‘Where to go for help’ section.


If your child is struggling with a similar problem, not directly addressed in this section, see the list below for links to information about other related symptom areas.

  • Social problems (Socializing): difficulty with social perspective taking, understanding what an appropriate reaction would be in a social situation and reading other people’s feelings can lead to emotional regulation problems
  • Depression: being irritable and explosive and underlying feelings of sadness and depression can lead to emotional regulation issues
  • Suicidal ideation: If tantrums are accompanied by negative statements and suicidal threats, depression and suicidal ideation should be considered during emotional outbursts or extreme reactions to stress and setbacks. If your child is suicidal, call 911, visit an emergency room or call the National Suicide Prevention hotline at: 1-800-273-8255.
  • Rigid behavior or perseverating: those who are anxious and relieve this anxiety by having things a certain way may have an emotional problem
  • Executive Functions (Organizing): many children who have a delay or disorder in executive functioning and significant impulsivity may struggle to regulate strong emotions


Children who have significant problems in this area may have any of the following potential disabilities. *Note, this does not serve as a diagnosis in any way. See ‘Where to Go for Help’ section for professionals who can diagnose or provide a referral.

  • Giftedness : Many gifted children are highly sensitive and intense, and they may struggle to regulate their emotions
  • Developmental Delay (Intellectual and Developmental Disability): Some children with delays in development will struggle with the understanding of and management of emotions
  • Anxiety: excessive worry that has an impact on day-to-day functioning; a number of anxiety disorders have been identified, from generalized anxiety to separation anxiety to social anxiety, with each one noting anxiety in a different domain of functioning
  • Depression: depressed mood, or, in children, irritability that is pervasive; decreased interest in activities that used to be enjoyable, temper tantrums may be part of irritability
  • Bipolar Disorder: depressed mood, or, in children, irritability that is pervasive; alternating with periods of elevated mood, pressured speech and goal-directed activity; in children, cycles tends to be less differentiated; they may blend together
  • Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder (DMDD): depressed mood, or, in children, irritability that is pervasive; this leads to behavioral outbursts or behavior challenges that are rooted in depression
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder: deficits in social communication and restricted interests or behaviors
  • Attachment Disorder (Trauma and Attachment disorders): rigidity and extreme behaviors that stem from challenges in attachment to primary caregivers (death of a parent, change of caregivers, abuse in the home could contribute)
  • Temperament: while not a diagnosis, a high level of negative emotionality may be part of temperament; the question to ask is “does this behavior impair daily functioning?” If there is not a huge impact, you may be able to attribute the tantrums to temperament and to utilize parenting strategies to help your child learn to self-regulate. (see resources below in Learn More section)


If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his learning, relationships, or happiness, the following professionals could help; they may offer diagnosis, treatment, or both.

  • CLEAR Child Psychology: to obtain a customized profile of concerns for your child, consult ‘live’ with the licensed psychologists and other professionals who authored these articles, or both.
  • Psychotherapist or Play Therapist: to treat emotional symptoms
  • ABA Therapist: to treat behavior; can conduct an analytical Functional Analysis of the function of the tantrum behavior that can help guide treatment
  • Psychologist or Neuropsychologist:  to consider a full assessment to look at symptoms in mental health and/or behavioral context

These professionals may recommend or administer the following tests for this symptom:


[1] Kroncke, Anna P., & Willard, Marcy & Huckabee, Helena (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.

Springer: http://www.springer.com/us/book/9783319255026

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Assessment-Autism-Spectrum-Disorder-Psychological/dp/3319255029/

[2] Dawn Huebner (2007). What to Do When Your Temper Flares: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Problems With Anger (What to Do Guides for Kids). https://www.amazon.com/What-When-Your-Temper-Flares/dp/1433801345/

[3] Applications for iPhone and Android www.calm.com and www.headspace.com mindfulness and meditation

[4] Purvis, Cross, & Sunshine (2007). The Connected Child. Bring hope and healing to your adoptive family. https://www.amazon.com/Connected-Child-healing-adoptive-family/dp/0071475001?ie=UTF8&hvadid=3523655623&hvbmt=be&hvdev=c&hvqmt=e&ref=pd_sl_92tq5iccf1_e&tag=mh0b-20

[5] Ross Greene: The Explosive Child: A parent’s guide for parenting chronically inflexible children


[6] Linder, Toni (2008). Transdisciplinary Play Based Assessment, Second Edition (TPBA-2). Paul H. Brookes Publishing Company. https://www.amazon.com/Transdisciplinary-Play-Based-Assessment-second-Linder/dp/B00BUFNX8A/

[7] Seigel & Bryson (2013). No drama-discipline: The whole-brain way to calm the chaos and nurture your child’s developing mind. https://www.amazon.com/No-Drama-Discipline-Whole-Brain-Nurture-Developing/dp/0345548043?ie=UTF8&hvadid=4162156440&hvbmt=be&hvdev=c&hvqmt=e&ref=pd_sl_3tktpckj2d_e&tag=mh0b-20

[8] Lewis, PhD, Jeanne, Calvery, Ph.D., Margaret, & Lewis, Ph.D., Hal (2002). BrainStars. Brain Injury: Strategies for Teams and Re-education for Students. US Department of Education: Office of Special Programs.

[9] Huebner, Dawn (2006). What to do when you grumble too much (A kid’s guide to overcoming negativity).

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/What-When-You-Grumble-Much/dp/1591474507/

[10] Lichtenheld, Tom (2007). What are you so grumpy about?

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/What-Are-You-Grumpy-About/dp/0316065897/

[11] Cook, Julia (2011). Soda pop head.

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Soda-Pop-Head-Julia-Cook/dp/193163677X/

Image Credit:
Description: Crying child
Stock Photo ID: #356219747 (Shutterstock)
By: Casezy idea
No more meltdowns
Previously Licensed on: May 20, 2017
Stylized by Katie Harwood exclusively for Clear Child Psychology

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