Does your autistic child struggle to control their anger, sadness, or overwhelm? Here’s how to help your autistic child regulate their emotions.
- Tips to help autistic people manage their emotions
- 1. Forget the visual supports.
- 2. Teach them how to feel their feelings without taking them out on other people
- 3. Teach in the moment, not before the moment.
- 4. Supplement with books, movies, TV, and music
- 5. Focus on teaching, not punishment
Tips to help autistic people manage their emotions
Autistics struggle to regulate their emotions, and the tips everywhere else don’t work, because of something called alexthymia — the inability to identify your emotions and feelings.
Neurodivergent people commonly share the alexithymia struggle. They may not know whether they feel hot or cold, happy or angry, or comprehend hunger or toilet cues. This can present as disordered eating, general malnutrition, and even incontinence.
Your autistic child isn’t going to comprehend their feelings from a chart. They might never be able to fully recognize their emotions exactly and express them perfectly. As long as you understand why that’s not the goal, that’s okay.
A toddler took off his shoe and threw it at me the other day because I wouldn’t let him on the other side of the gate. I laughed. Non-autistic people usually perceive this reaction as “inappropriate to the situation”, the same way they do when autistic people laugh or stim erratically at funerals.
The problem isn’t their behavior not matching the socially acceptable energy for the situation. The problem is alexithymia, which includes struggling to process your emotions properly.
You will never be able to remove the autism from your child. They will still have meltdowns, shutdowns, and engage in socially unacceptable behaviors in a society where neurotypical is default.
However, teaching them how to self-regulate their emotions is a crucial life skill that will help them in adulthood. Self-regulation is an executive functioning skill, which autistic people also struggle with.
So you have two things working against emotional intelligence, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
1. Forget the visual supports.
Honestly, they’re pointless. Every neurotypical thinks visual supports work because many autistic people are visual thinkers.
Riddle me this: How is a visual chart of emotion illustrations and labels supposed to help if you don’t even know how you’re feeling?
It’s like someone handing you ingredients (unmeasured) and a few pictures of what it could look like. If you’re a recipe developer, you might be okay with this. Most people aren’t and wouldn’t know how to get the final result.
Even worse: The ingredients don’t have anything to do with the pictures. They’re from various, unrelated recipes.
Feelings as an autistic person works similarly. You get feelings from different sources all aligning, without the vocabulary to express it. Autistic brains process more information than non-autistic brains. Our emotions are not cookie cutter and simplistic.
The charts are inapplicable with our support needs, but we’re expected to work with them anyway. Some of us mask, while others struggle and are deemed worthy of higher supports or seen as too difficult.
2. Teach them how to feel their feelings without taking them out on other people
Release the concept of appropriate emotions for specific situations. This is also pointless:
“Discuss the appropriate emotions for different scenarios. It’s okay to be frustrated or angry when they don’t get their way, but not to go into a rage fit or scream and yell.”An article I read
Feeling your feelings and expressing your feelings are two different things. (And a rage fit is most likely a meltdown; treat it like one.)
Emotional regulation is the ability to refrain from taking one’s emotions out on another. It’s also the recognition that oneself is responsible for their emotions, and that no one can make anyone feel a feeling. Rather, a third-party can trigger their mood, which they comprehend via feelings.
Before you can teach your autistic child emotional regulation, you need to learn how to regulate yours. Autistic children often learn how to behave by mimicking the people in their lives. If you insist they behave a certain way, while you behave the complete opposite, they’ll recognize the hypocrisy.
If your actions don’t match your words, then your words don’t matter. If you struggle to control your anger so you’re not constantly lashing out at your autistic child, they’re going to have meltdowns out the wazoo.
3. Teach in the moment, not before the moment.
If you yell at your kid, apologize and admit that you made a mistake. Correcting your own behavior is that simple, and it goes a long way. If you have a history of yelling at your autistic child, change the pattern by correcting your behavior and demonstrating it to your child.
Side effects include becoming a better parent, forming a better relationship with your autistic child, and breaking the cycle of emotional abuse. Chances are, you were raised that same way (even though you turned out “fine”).
When you witness your child struggling with their Big Feelings, refrain from reacting and instead focus on responding to their behavior. What do they need from you, in this moment? How can you help them?
Help them identify their triggers
Approach the situation with the goal of assessing the situation together.
- How could they have reacted differently? What could have happened instead?
- How could this situation be avoided in the future? What can they do next time they feel like a Mentos-in-Coke?
Expose them to new ways of describing their emotions
I never understood my anger until the Mentos-in-Coke experiment gained popularity in the early 2000s. I was obsessed. It gave me the vocabulary I needed to identify my meltdowns: “Like Mentos in Coke, with the lid screwed on slightly, so it flies off in the explosion.”
I experimented with it further, realizing cold soda bottles didn’t work. This helped me realize that I needed to step away and cool off when I felt that way. (The adults in my life didn’t allow this, but I still do this as an adult.)
Try doing science experiments together, make art, go to the movies — fill your autistic child with core memories and life experiences they can compare future situations to. Make that your thing — it’s more intimate than eye contact when someone else understands our neurotype and how our brain works.
Tell your child you “feel like that time when ____” instead of saying you’re overjoyed. Experiences and moments paint the feelings into words, animating them in high-definition.
Consider the feeling you experience when you meet someone for the first time and find out they also do something, then you become best friends for a short while. It’s a magical experience.
4. Supplement with books, movies, TV, and music
If you feel as though you’re in over your head, or need some assistance pronto, check your local library for children’s books with themes of emotional regulation and feelings.
Pop culture is your emotional regulation lesson BFF (best friend forever), especially in the form of Ms. Rachel. Those baby doll and Barbie YouTube shows by adults are great, too. Unfortunately, the doll episodes do have legitimate plots and teach life skills like empathy, emotional regulation, integrity, and problem-solving.
Fiction teaches empathy much better than nonfiction. Autistic people are much more imaginative than allistics give them credit for, so your autistic child might appreciate the fictional children’s stories — specifically those featuring animals.
- “The Rabbit Listened” by Cori Doerrfeld
- “My Mouth is a Volcano” by Julia Cook
- “Ravi’s Roar” by Tom Percival
- “Breathing Makes It Better” by Christopher Willard
- “When I Feel Angry” by Cornelia Spelman
- “The Emotions Book” by Liz Fletcher
- “Soda Pop Head” by Julia Cook
- “I Just Don’t Like the Sound of No!” by Julia Cook
- “Listening to My Body” by Gabi Garcia
- “You Weren’t With Me” by Chandra Ghosh Ippen
5. Focus on teaching, not punishment
Oftentimes, the consequences of our actions are delivered right then and there. It might be your child’s embarrassment from their anger or their favorite toy getting broken during a meltdown.
Tacking on additional consequences is less discipline and more punishment — which is retaliation, not discipline — promotes antisocial behavior and masking. Inevitably, this will destroy your relationship with your child in the future.
Think about it. Have you ever said something you instantly regretted, but couldn’t take back? Autistic children are children, too. Kids learn how to behave based on how the people around them behave. If you say cruel things when you’re mad, so too will your children.
A simple discussion in the moment about their feelings and the impulsive reaction to those feelings validates their feelings without validating their behavior. Not every consequence has to be something you deliver. Correcting children’s behavior, especially that of autistic children’s, is way less stressful once you stop trying to control every ounce of them.
Relationships with autistic people are like relationships in The Sims games. The more negative interactions you have , even with your children, the less green you’ll have, and the closer to red you’ll be. At some point, your apologies mean zilch and there is no recovery.
By learning how to regulate your own emotions, and self-correcting your own behavior, you’ll teach your autistic child (or any kid) how to self-regulate their feelings as well.
Additionally, please remember and know that autism does not encompass all the negative characteristics of your child. Autistic people are neurodivergent and likely to have additional neurodivergent conditions, as well as a trauma disorder.
How do you help your autistic child to regulate their emotions? Share your ideas in the comments.