Supporting Emotional Regulation Not Promoting Emotional Suppression

Jodie Warren, SEND Coach & Consultant, Jodie Warren Coaching
13th February 2024

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Please note this article is not intended as an alternative to professional mental health advice. The ideas covered below may not be appropriate where experience of uncomfortable emotions is rooted in more complex needs or trauma. If you are concerned about your own or a child’s emotional wellbeing please seek advice from a relevant mental health professional.

As explored in a previous blog, the process of regulating our emotions involves three deceptively simple stages:

  • Recognising how we’re feeling
  • Recognising whether that feeling needs to change
  • Taking steps to change how we’re feeling

In order to be able to effectively support children’s ability to manage their emotions we first need to understand this process and be able to work through it ourselves.

As explored in the previous article ‘Three Top Tips for Supporting Emotional Awareness’, how we’re feeling offers a foundation for being able to regulate emotions and make choices about how we think and respond to particular situations. The next step is to recognise whether or not we need to take steps to change how we’re feeling.

This can seem counter-intuitive — surely if we’re feeling sad or angry or grumpy we want to do something to shift that? But, in order to make sure we’re modelling strategies which support healthy regulation, before taking steps to change those feelings we need to understand the difference between regulating emotions and suppressing them. Jodie Warren

When emotions are suppressed, although our behaviour might change, the feelings inside us do not. Effectively those uncomfortable emotions get bottled up which, in the long-term, has been repeatedly shown to negatively impact emotional and physical health. If the strategies we model and teach promote squashing down uncomfortable emotions the moment we identify them and pretending we’re fine, this has long-term implications for children. When we teach and model emotional regulation, we are equipping children with life skills they’ll continue to use as they grow so we want to ensure these skills support healthy emotional regulation as well as promoting emotional wellbeing.

With this in mind, yes, there will many situations where we want to help children to understand how they can change how they’re feeling (and express those feelings in a way that’s safe for them and others), but there will also be times when the most effective way to support our children is to help them sit with that uncomfortable feeling until it passes. It might not feel easy but the reality is that we all have times when we feel sad or stressed or cross and sometimes it’s OK to feel uncomfortable emotions.

Rather than avoiding those feelings the ‘regulation’ aspect might focus on changing our thoughts about them and moving from ‘it’s not OK to feel like this’ or ‘I shouldn’t feel…’ through to ‘I feel… and it’s uncomfortable’. It might involve changing our behaviour from shouting when we feel cross through to going for a walk before responding but the focus is on managing our reaction rather than immediately shifting the feeling.

So how can we support children to be able to do this too?

In the moment we might:

  • if there was something that prompted them to feel this way acknowledge that and name the emotion, for example, ‘the swimming pool was closed today and you felt disappointed’ or ‘sharing can be hard, I understand you feeling cross’ to help them start to make this connection
  • acknowledge how they’re feeling without immediately trying to change it
  • use their words to describe the feeling if they differ from your own, for example, worried might be ‘fizzy’ or sad might be ‘heavy blue’

Outside of the moment when they’re calm (& you’re feeling calm too!):

  • if they’re able to communicate, ask what helps in those moments, what makes things better? Maybe when they feel sad they just want to draw on their own or if they feel cross they like to be outside & move around. Having this understanding can both support their awareness of how they regulate & also enable staff to plan ahead so that in moments of dysregulation you’re more able to accommodate what has been identified as being helpful.

Teaching children to regulate their emotions is not just about teaching them how to change how they’re feeling. It’s also about teaching how they can sit with some of those less comfortable ones but when we help children to do this we not only support effective regulation, we also promote long-term emotional wellbeing.

To find out more about how to support emotional regulation or staff and pupil wellbeing contact me on or follow me here. 

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