Children often make discoveries through physical actions such as running, walking, playing, and scribbling. Their inner worlds manifest through these physical experiences. When a child is irritable, stressed, or struggling emotionally, their symptoms often appear physically. These symptoms may be seen as tension, crying tantrums, physical aggression, running away, throwing things, and so on.
Eventually, most children learn to regulate their emotions and express themselves in other ways. Emotional regulation refers to the ability to monitor feelings, evaluate emotional and physical responses, and modify emotional reactions in order to accomplish a goal. A child’s goal might range from earning screen time to not wanting to feel embarrassed in front of friends. A goal might also be a learned one, such as acting the “right” way at home.
Parents are largely responsible for regulating a child’s experience (for example, soothing a crying baby) in infancy and early childhood. When children reach preschool age, they begin to emotionally regulate independently. For youth without traumatic experiences or neurodiversity (autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity, or other neurodiverse conditions), independent emotional regulation becomes fairly stable around adolescence.
But some children struggle with the process of emotional regulation. Emotional dysregulation describes an inability or difficulty with monitoring, evaluating, and modifying emotional and physical responses. A number of factors can contribute to the development of this difficulty. Regardless of cause, the effects of emotional dysregulation may be seen in a child’s behavior. A child may also experience increased mental health symptoms as a result.
What Does Emotional Dysregulation Look Like?
Emotional dysregulation appears in two major forms: under-regulation and over-regulation.
Under-regulation may occur when:
- Children cannot sense their emotional experience.
- Children cannot sense environmental triggers.
- Children have little to no internal mechanism to soothe themselves. This can be seen in some children who have experienced traumatic events and children with neurodiversity.
Under-regulation can result in behaviors such as impulsive actions, physical acting out, frequent meltdowns, poor concentration, and irritability.
Dance/movement therapy has been found to be helpful for many children. This approach offers body-based, clinical interventions for kids who present with symptoms of emotional dysregulation, struggle with emotional experience, and/or find it difficult to self-regulate emotionally.
Over-regulation may occur when:
- Children can sense emotions but have trouble listening to them.
- Children modify or suppress their emotional experience.
Over-regulation may lead children to lose a sense of connection with their emotions and with others. It can result in behaviors such as withdrawal, isolation, compulsions, and even outbursts of anger and aggression.
Helping Children Cope with Emotional Dysregulation
A number of treatments can help a person address their emotional experience and cope in healthier ways. Dance/movement therapy is one that has been found to be helpful for many children. This approach offers body-based, clinical interventions for kids who present with symptoms of emotional dysregulation, struggle with emotional experience, and/or find it difficult to self-regulate emotionally.
The American Dance Therapy Association defines dance/movement therapy as “the psychotherapeutic use of movement to promote emotional, social, cognitive and physical integration of the individual.” Trained dance/movement therapists use large motor movement, physical gestures, nonverbal communication, problem-solving skills, and movement games to engage children in therapy. These tactics can help the children address a variety of behaviors and symptoms, emotional dysregulation among them.
An integrative approach, dance/movement therapy uses the mind, body, and emotions. This type of treatment lends itself well to addressing the major areas of emotional dysregulation while meeting children at their developmental level.
Dance/movement therapy can help children with emotional regulation by:
- Providing a physical outlet for emotional energy: Movement, dance, and body-based interventions are the primary modes of interaction. Physical movements on their own can offer children a chance to exert emotional energy. Dance/movement therapists are uniquely trained to offer movement interventions within a child’s scope of tolerance while providing a safe space for them to engage in physical activity. Movement as treatment can also assist children who over-regulate to physically express some of their suppressed emotions.
- Increasing body awareness: As with repetition in any form, increased practice results in increased skill. Youth who participate in dance/movement therapy learn to use their body through focused intervention on a regular basis. This participation results in increased body control and increased body awareness. This awareness in turn helps children learn to recognize and understand physical signs of distress. Responding to early physical signs of distress is an important part of learning to cope, manage, and regulate emotions.
- Offering a new way to cope: Not all children are able to sit still and engage in activities like coloring to self-regulate. Many children need to move. Just as creating art, listening to music, and playing video games can help children cope with emotions, so can dance and movement. Through the dance/movement therapy process, children not only get to move around and increase body-based self-awareness, but they also learn to use movement and dance to cope. Children may practice movement-based coping strategies in session with the therapist and learn through experience how dance and movement can help improve emotional well-being.
- Alternative to talk-based processing: An expressive arts therapy, dance/movement therapy uses movement as a tool for processing feelings, events, and experiences. In session, movement is the primary avenue for children to create and re-experience, directly or indirectly, through metaphor and play. Dance/movement therapists can assist children in expressing traumatic experiences, challenging social circumstances, and reliving those experiences through a strength-based, movement lens.
Children interact and experience the world through movement and physical engagement. They tend to express their fears, frustrations, joys, and challenges through their bodies. Some children struggle to manage their emotional experiences. Others may suppress their emotions and withdraw. Dance/movement therapy can be of benefit in both situations. This clinical medium for movement-based processing and coping can help children work toward independent emotional regulation.
If you’d like to learn more about dance/movement therapy for your child, a therapist or counselor may be able to provide you with more information or a referral.
- Ahmed, S. P., Bittencourt-Hewitt, A., & Sebastian, C. L. (2015). Neurocognitive bases of emotion regulation development in adolescence. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, 15, 11-25. doi: 10.1016/j.dcn.2015.07.006
- American Dance Therapy Association. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://adta.org
- Fielding, L. (2017, December 6). Finding emotional balance: Are you an over or under regulator? Huffington Post. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/lara-fielding/finding-emotional-balance-are-you-an-over-or-under-regulator_b_8218256.html
- Matusiewicz, A., Weaverling, G., & Lejuez, C. W. (2014). Emotion dysregulation among adolescents with borderline personality disorder. Handbook of borderline personality disorder in children and adolescents, 177-194. doi: 10.1007/978-1-4939-0591-1_13
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