Emotional Regulation: Tools for Calming Body and Mind

Like most of my thoughts about emotional regulation, this post starts with my daughter. She’s six, though according to the laws of relativity she’s probably a little older than that because she moves so close to light speed. Recently she started a recess “club” at her school called the “dangerous stuff club,” which, she was proud to report, does things that would make all of their mothers nervous. In the evenings, I’ve been considering duct taping her to large stationary objects to help her settle in. But it turns out to be unnecessary. It’s unnecessary because we finally found the one thing that will make her sit still: soldering. With her safety glasses on and her tongue between her teeth, she will solder and snip for a full hour.


Yes, I’m a proud mamma watching my daughter involve herself fully in an activity that is far beyond her years and non-stereotypical for her gender. But I’m also a PhD psychotherapist and school psychologist here at Mackintosh. And I couldn’t help but notice that soldering had helped my sometimes-a-particle, sometimes-a-wave daughter achieve an emotional state that is really, truly hard for her.


Was it just her or is there something about the activity that could help other kids?


I work with a three-part strategy that helps kids (and adults…) learn to calm their bodies and minds. First, I try to help them realize what it feels like to be elevated or dysregulated – how does it feel a frenzied “10” on the scale of emotional regulation? And how does it feel to be more regulated, say below a “5”? The second step is working to discover strategies that can help move lower on this scale – to get from a 10 back into a more manageable range. And the third step is adding the components of self-awareness and language – being able to say, “I’m starting to feel [blank], I really need to [blank].”


By far, the most difficult part of this process is the first step. How often do you have those moments of clarity in which, just for a split second, you look from outside yourself to find that you’re gritting your teeth with stress, or spinning your mind in anger, or clenching your shoulders high with tension, or even vibrating with excitement (and not in the immediate aftermath of a trip to Ozo…)? Even as adults it can be tremendously difficult to see the forest for the trees – it can be desperately hard to recognize and monitor our emotional states. And we’re supposed to know better!


Now imagine how hard this awareness is for a child. Nothing you say can help a child truly know how these emotional states feel in their bodies. No wall chart with cartoon faces of emotions or silly board game that “leads” from angry to calm can allow a child to experience these very real states of being. I know how to help a child process an elevated state: we can work carefully with traumatic memories or I can encourage struggles in the therapy room with challenging toys.


One of my clients finds calmness with my Labrador. For another, it’s sifting kinetic sand. But for some kids (and, again, some adults…) it can be nearly impossible to find an exercise or game or activity that creates real, profound, organic calmness.


So I’ve started introducing soldering with some of my clients – just the ones that show interest and have been difficult to reach in other ways. Here’s the thing: if you’ve ever done a soldering kit (SparkFun or another), you know that it’s impossible to get anything done without steady hands and a pinpoint focus on the tiny parts in each step. Deeply involved in a soldering kit, I’ve seen tricky clients find a level of focus that I’ve been unable to help them reach in any other way.


That’s the first step, this true feeling of focused calm. From this point forward in our journey together, this feeling can provide a known target that we can aim for. I don’t expect my young clients to carry a soldering iron and a pair of clippers in a fanny pack wherever they go, but once they know this experience of self-regulation, we can work to find it in other ways. And for absolutely everyone I’ve ever worked with, this state just feels good. True focus, precision and selfless involvement may be something kids (and adults) have never felt before.


Take it for what it’s worth: just an idea. But my daughter and now my clients have helped me to place soldering into my quiver of ideas that can artificially create a first experience of calmness that can create a template for self-regulation moving forward.