Building Emotion Regulation Skills at Home
by Ainsley Losh, PhD
Postdoctoral Psychology Fellow
Youth on the autism spectrum often face mental health challenges and parents can be left wondering how to support their children’s emotional functioning at home. In a recent study, Conner and colleagues (2023) examined how emotion regulation and executive functioning skills contribute to anxiety and depression for autistic adolescents and young adults. Emotion regulation refers to the ability to manage your emotional states. Executive functioning refers to the skills needed to maintain cognitive control over behaviors (e.g., goal setting, self-control, maintaining focus). One aspect of executive functioning that can be difficult for some autistic individuals is cognitive flexibility, or the ability to mentally shift between different thoughts and tasks. The researchers found that individuals with poorer emotion regulation skills were more likely to experience anxiety and depression. Further, cognitive flexibility challenges contributed to depression (Conner et al., 2023). Although additional research is needed, this suggests that emotion regulation and cognitive flexibility may be important for mental health in autistic youth.
The following strategies can help parents support their children’s emotion regulation and cognitive flexibility at home and in the community.
- Label your own emotions and your child’s emotions during everyday activities – utilize visual supports when possible (Rispoli et al., 2019). Labeling emotions of characters in books, videos, or movies can also be helpful.
- Validate that it is okay and normal to experience all emotions and emphasize that we are in control of how we handle those emotions.
- Model using effective emotion regulation strategies (e.g., deep breathing, relaxation, taking a break, distracting yourself). Verbally describe the actions you are taking and utilize visual aids (Rispoli et al., 2019). Encourage your child to practice these strategies daily when they feel calm so they become easier to use in more challenging moments.
- Provide less supportive prompts before more supportive prompts when cuing your child to engage in emotion regulation strategies to help them build independence. Utilize visual supports if possible (Rispoli et al., 2019). For example, point to a visual reminder or gesture to take deep breaths or take a break before giving a direct verbal instruction.
- Help your child understand antecedents, or triggers, to their challenging moments (i.e., what often happens right before they experience an emotional challenge).
- Create opportunities for your child to practice handling challenging moments little by little rather than all at once (Reaven et al., 2012). Work with your child to identify a range of challenging situations and have them order these from least to most challenging (i.e., create a hierarchy). Start by helping your child work through the least challenging situations or triggers and slowly move your way up together.
- Notice when your child is engaging in perseverative (i.e., continuous or repetitive) negative thinking and help them shift those thoughts or use a distraction strategy (Conner et al., 2023). Visual cues and helping children learn to identify when they are getting “stuck” can be helpful.
- Support your child’s sensory needs by providing access to self-soothing tools (e.g., fidgets), environmental changes (e.g., lighting, sounds), and creating space for engaging in movement and self-stimulatory behaviors.
- Provide positive, specific feedback when your child successfully utilizes emotion regulation strategies or cognitive flexibility. Emphasize that they are strong, brave, in control, and can handle difficult things.
- Understand and acknowledge your child’s strengths and special interests – create positive interactions with your child often (Reaven et al., 2012) and encourage them to recognize their own unique strengths and skills.
- Conner, C. M., Elias, R., Smith, I. C., & White, S. W. (2023). Emotion regulation and executive function: Associations with depression and anxiety in autism. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 101, 102103.
- Reaven, J., Blakeley-Smith, A., Leuthe, E., Moody, E., & Hepburn, S. (2012). Facing your fears in adolescence: Cognitive-behavioral therapy for high-functioning autism spectrum disorders and anxiety. Autism Research and Treatment, 2012.
- Rispoli, K. M., Malcolm, A. L., Nathanson, E. W., & Mathes, N. E. (2019). Feasibility of an emotion regulation intervention for young children with autism spectrum disorder: A brief report. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 67, 101420.