Emotional Regulation Vs Executive Functioning in Children.

Did you know that children are not born with the capacity for self-control? Helping your child to regulate is one of the most important tasks in parenting and within ourselves. Emotional regulation and executive functioning skills are interlinked, so this blog will explain further.

What is Self/ Emotional Regulation?.

Self-regulation is the capacity to manage emotions and behaviour in accordance with the demands of the situation. It is also our capacity to calm/self soothe when upset and furthermore be flexible to a change in an expectation or routine. It means your child can stay focused on their goal even though there may internal and external changes.

Self-control/regulation takes time. If you are a parent of a toddler, tantrums and ” big feelings” are all part of this. It develops over the years ( with some saying that the brain is fully adult at 24). Mostly the biggest changes occur between 3-7 years and then again in adolescence. During adolescence, the brain “rewires itself”, especially in the areas of the pre-frontal cortex. This is the last region of the brain to mature.

Why is Emotional Regulation so difficult in Children?.

When babies are born, their brains are not yet well developed. We can think of their brains developing as if they are building a house. ( Downstairs and upstairs). They are learning to develop the upstairs brain and in particular certain skills called executive functioning skills. They are housed in the prefrontal cortex. Often emotional regulation and executive functioning skills are seen as separate entities. The image below demonstrates the development of the cortex ( the blue colour):

However, our ability to think clearly and put the executive function into action is directly related to what we feel and how intensely we feel it. If we become dysregulated in our emotions, our executive functions skills will be impaired. When we are really stressed out or upset, the prefrontal cortex shuts down and no longer works with the rest of the brain. We subsequently lose the capacity to problem solve. During these times, it is pointless to reason with your child, wait, and discuss it later. Keep in mind Dr. Bruce Perry’s 3 R’s.

There are three main areas of executive function. They are:

  1. Working memory
  2. Cognitive flexibility (also called flexible thinking)
  3. Inhibitory control (which includes self-control)

These can be broken down further into six domains.

(Ref: Attachment, Developmental Trauma, and Executive Functioning Difficulties in the School Setting. Marion Allen. Family Futures).

  1. Inhibit– the ability to stop one’s behaviour at appropriate times. It is our “edit” button. This is the capacity to take a pause. These are children who shout out in class and have difficulties in unstructured times at school. This is often “one” of the characteristics of ADHD.
  2. Shift/sequencing-Move from one thing to another and for it to be smooth. I see many children who struggle with transitions and present as totally disorientated by a change of routine. This is often evident at night and going out to school or nursery.
  3. Emotional Control-. How to regulate emotions. Even though ALL children are learning this capacity) some children struggle more. Their internal emotional state can frequently shift resulting, in angry, distressed, or over-excitable behaviour.
  4. Working Memory-It’s the ability to hold on to new information in order to complete a task. Working memory allows us to hold information without losing track of what we’re doing. For example, cooking and following a recipe.
  5. Plan and organise- This relates to the ability to implement, plan, set, and thereupon work through the steps to achieve the goal. Many teenagers struggle to start a task or what we might need to bring to class.
  6. Self Reflection/monitor. This is the ability to look and notice behaviour as others do, In addition, the effect it might have on another person. This also includes checking and monitoring work. Many children I’ve worked with really struggle with why their work wasn’t given a good mark and often see life through the lens of being unjust and unfairly treated.

Normal Development.

This is always a difficult question. Each child’s brain develops at different rates. A three-year-old is going to have less capacity to manage than a 7-year-old. All children present with emotional dysregulation at times and this is perfectly normal. You need to consider whether it is developmentally appropriate. Here is a guideline:

  • 5-12 months- the start of behavioural inhibition and working memory (nonverbal).
  • 5-12 months- self-regulation of affect and arousal.
  • 3-5 years- verbal memory. It is then not internalised until 9-12 years.
  • 6 upwards-cognitive, behavioural flexibility and creativity.

(Ref: Attachment, Developmental Trauma, and Executive Functioning Difficulties in the School Setting. Marion Allen. Family Futures p4).

You might notice:

emotional regulation

Adolescence-24 years of age.

If you are parenting an adolescent right now, you will definitely be noticing the impact of the changes in their brain. Often this begins just before ( pre-pubescent stage). Teenagers are much heavily reliant on their emotional Limbic System, thus, interpersonal interactions and decision making are more impulsive. This offers a partial explanation of why they are quick to anger, have intense mood swings, risk takes more, sensation seeks, and make decisions on ” gut instinct” rather than a logical reading of the situation. It can be baffling to be a parent at this time. On the next occasion your teenager ” blows”, try not to take it personally, it’s a “brain thing” however, being accountable is important too.

How can I help my Child?

  • The brain adapts to its experiences. We know positive interactions in the early years have a lasting impact on how we learn, regulate emotions, and develop trust in relationships.
Divorce and separation
  • Emotionally responsive parenting really helps your child to cope with stress. The way you talk to your child makes a difference!. An important action is not just to talk to your child, but to talk with your child. It’s not just about dumping language into your child’s brain but actually carry on a conversation with them. A study showed parents should perhaps talk less, and listen more.
  • Be developmentally appropriate with expectations.
  • Make a simple weekly planner, this is especially helpful for children who suffer from anxiety. In addition younger children whose working memory is developing.
  • Give instruction and commands one at a time.
  • Avoid helicoptering parenting, teach your child to problem-solve. For example:
  1. What do you need to do to complete your schoolwork?
  2. Oops, how do you think you could clear that up?
  3. Two choices, which one?
  4. How can you and your sister solve that problem?
  5. What do think do you need to put on, if you don’t want to be cold outside?
  • Use visual charts to explain expectations and sequencing. For example, the one below for the morning routine.
  • For older children, post-it reminder notes really help.
  • Take a pause, self-regulation and executive functions come in limited quantities. They can be depleted very quickly when your child works too hard over too short a time (like while taking a test). Give your child a chance to refuel by encouraging frequent breaks during tasks that stress the executive system. Breaks work best up to 10 minutes.

Lastly, whatever your age child’s age, offer them individual play as “special time”. Playing with your child offers so many benefits.

In Conclusion

It is clear that none of us thought be would be parenting at such a challenging time, hence, It’s more important than ever to let go of the fallacy of being the perfect parent, good enough is just fine!.

When something goes wrong, rather than blame your child or yourself, try to see their need and what’s might be behind the behaviour. If possible, stay with any big feeling ( yours and theirs) and then validate their emotions. Sometimes we all need to pause, regulate, then return to talk about when everyone has calmed.

I hope this helps you all and if you need some support, do contact me for a consultation. Stay safe and well. With love and gratitude Catherine

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