How to Get Your Child to Talk about Their Feelings Instead of Acting Out or Shutting Down

“Calm down!”, “Wake up!”, “Stop goofing around!”, “Listen to me!”

What do these commands all have in common?  

#1-They are all common phrases used when talking to children.

#2-They are all requests to self-regulate.

But what does self-regulation really mean?  What is involved?  And how do we teach these skills?

To answer these questions, we interviewed Leah Kuypers who is an occupational therapist and creator of the Zones of Regulation (published by Think Social Publishing 2011), which is a curriculum to foster self-regulation and manage emotions. 

Leah explains that self-regulation involves processing the sensory world around us and making sense of it so that we can adapt our behavior accordingly.  It also involves higher level thinking skills called executive functions that help to manage impulses and the timing and duration of emotions we experience. Lastly, it involves the social/cognitive brain to be able to recognize who is in our presence and how they may be impacted by our behavior and actions.

An Interview with Leah Kuypers, Creator of the Zones of Regulation (™)

It’s important to be aware that these skills are developmental in nature, just like walking and talking. They develop over time and can be associated with a diagnosis or stand alone with no delay or other concerns. 

Regulation involves being able to monitor and adjust the levels of alertness and energy in our bodies when needed. An example is the experience of waking up sluggish and needing to get ready for the day. Or, when we are in a heightened state of alertness, such as feeling silly and needing to calm ourselves down to sit and eat dinner. 

We all have these feelings and it’s important to make sure that we do not judge children or tell them that they can’t or shouldn’t feel a certain way. We can help them to be more aware of their levels of alertness, how it makes them feel, and how it affects the people and situations around them. We can help them adapt based on the environment and goals that they are trying to accomplish.

Learning to self-regulate is a complex process and can be difficult to teach and learn.That is where The Zones of Regulation comes in as an excellent framework to build these important skills.

Overview of the Zones of Regulation (Zones):

The Zones is a systematic way to think and talk about how we feel on the inside. There are four zones that help us categorize all of the sensations, energy, states of alertness, and emotions that we experience.

There are four colored Zones:  

-The Blue Zone is the lowest level of energy and emotions such as sick, tired, or bored.

-The Green Zone is a more organized or neutral level, such as calm, focused, happy, settled, or “good to go.”

-The Yellow Zone is a bit more intense, such as being nervous, anxious, overwhelmed, excited, or silly.  These feelings have more energy but there is a sense of control.

-The Red Zone is the highest state of alertness or energy, such as panicked, ecstatic, or devastated. These are often the most intense feelings of energy and may include when we are in a state of fight, flight, freeze, or faint.

We move through all of these zones and….ALL ZONES are okay! 

The Zones helps to put language and structure around something that is hard to talk about so that we can make sense of it and make it easier to communicate and co-regulate around these feelings.

Within the Zones curriculum, individuals learn to identify how they are feeling, what Zone they are in, and then develop a toolbox of strategies to manage each Zone. It’s a pathway to regulation.

The Zones curriculum is being used all over the world in schools and homes, and Leah wants to emphasize that ALL ZONES are okay! The Red Zone is not the “bad” zone. When using the Zones visuals in the home and classroom, please set that tone that we all go through the various zones.  

Also, using the Zones as a common language is a way we can model how to talk about our feelings and manage them. As adults, we are constantly managing our level of energy and emotions to achieve our goals from situation to situation. If we are more overt with our children about how we are doing this, they can learn from us in the natural environment. Instead of just walking out of the room when we are upset, we can say, “I’m in the Red Zone and feeling upset right now; I’m going to take a break to calm myself down.”

We can also help them by co-regulating, which means that we stay calm and help them manage their feelings and adapt their behavior when needed. We can do this in many ways, such as using a calm tone of voice, getting down to their level, reducing the number of words we use, and also by validating and naming their feelings, such as, “I can see that you are upset; I understand and I’m here for you.”  

Supporting our children’s ability to regulate is critical for self-confidence and well-being, relationships, academics, and life skills. Although self-regulation is complex, The Zones of Regulation can make it easier to teach and learn. Learn more here about the Zones. 

Thank you Leah for your devotion to this work and thanks to Social Thinking Publishing for making these resources so accessible.  

Also, a huge shout out to Leah for being a contributor and guest speaker in the  Make it Stick Parenting Course and Community, our new online course and community dedicated to supporting families with children who have additional needs. 

For upcoming Zone Webinars click here: https://zonesofregulation.com/the-zones-half-day-webinar.html

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