Emotion Regulation: An Essential Aspect of Social Communication

Consider all the details and small actions we perform when we interact with others, including everything from the speech style we use with different people to our body language.

This is social communication.

Social communication demands the integration of language processing, pragmatics, and social and emotional learning. The ability to regulate emotion is an essential element of social and emotional learning.

We must regulate emotion when we establish relationships, form friendships, and interact in learning contexts, but many children with disabilities, including language impairment, autism spectrum disorder, developmental language disorder, social pragmatic communication disorder, and intellectual disability, have difficulty regulating emotion. This often leads to exclusion, isolation, and victimization by their peers.

What’s Involved in Emotion Regulation?

Emotional regulation has two sides—calming down and gearing up.

When children are in stressful or overstimulating situations, they need to calm their emotions to control their behavior and become available to learn. On the other hand, if a child is faced with an intimidating situation, he or she must be able to gear up sufficient emotion to attempt a challenging task. To complicate matters, the ability to both calm down and gear up may be necessary within the same task.

As an example, think of a child who is approaching a group of other children on a playground. The approaching child will need to gear up sufficient emotion to enter the group and stay with the play. If a conflict arises, the child must now calm his or her feelings of frustration or anger in order to maintain positive interactions with their peers.

How Do Children Learn to Regulate Their Emotions?

Numerous factors influence a child’s emotion regulation skills. Initially, infants and young children depend on external supports to help them regulate their emotions. You can see this in the variety of strategies caregivers employ to calm down a fussy or upset baby. By the same token, caregivers help babies gear up by establishing eye contact and inviting them to interact.

As children mature, they develop their own internal strategies to help them calm down and gear up. The development of verbal language—especially emotional talk—is extremely important to this developmental process. Research shows that children whose parents talk to them about emotion experience a considerable advantage in their ability to regulate themselves as they get older.1, 2, 3

How Can We Help Children Learn to Regulate Their Emotions?

A social communication approach to intervention includes emotion regulation as an important treatment goal. Many children with poor language abilities have a meager emotion word vocabulary.4, 5, 6, 7 What steps can SLPs take to help children who are struggling in this way?

  • We can help children learn to identify and label their own emotions.
  • We can encourage caregivers and teachers to talk about the emotions that children experience and to model strategies for calming and managing negative emotions.
  • We can validate children’s concerns while also encouraging them to gear up emotion to begin and stay with challenging tasks.

Regulating emotion is essential to a child’s ability to relate to others and learn in school. When you think about emotional regulation as an important component of social communication, it’s easy to see the value of teaching children, caregivers, and teachers strategies for regulating emotion.

  1. Newton, E. K., Thompson, R. A., & Goodman, M. (2016). Individual differences in toddlers' prosociality: Experiences in early relationships explain variability in prosocial behavior. Child Development, 87: 1715-1726.
  2. Thompson, R. (2011). The emotionate child. In D. Cicchetti & G. I. Goisman (Eds.), Minnesota Symposia on Child Psychology: The Origins and Organization of Adaptation and Maladaptation (Vol. 36, pp. 13-53): John Wiley & Sons.
  3. Brownell, C. A., Svetlova, M., Anderson, R., Nichols, S. R., & Drummond, J. (2013). Socialization of early prosocial behavior: Parents’ talk about emotions is associated with sharing and helping in toddlers. Infancy18: 91– 119.
  4. Ford, J. A. & Milosky, L. M. (2003). Inferring emotional reactions in social situations: differences in children with language impairment. Journal of Speech, Language, Hearing Research, 46: 21-30.
  5. Ford, J. A. & Milosky, L. M. (2008). Inference generation during discourse and its relation to social competence: an online investigation of abilities of children with and without language impairment. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 51: 367-380.
  6. Brinton, B., Fujiki, M., & Asai, N. (2019). The ability of five children with developmental language disorder to describe mental states in stories. Communication Disorders Quarterly, 40(2): 109-116.
  7. Spackman, M. P., Fujiki, M., & Brinton, B. (2006). Understanding emotions in context: the effects of language impairment on children's ability to infer emotional reactions. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, 41: 173-188.
  8. Spackman, M. P., Fujiki, M., Brinton, B., Nelson, D., & Allen, J. (2006). The ability of children with language impairment to recognize emotion conveyed by facial expression and music. Communication Disorders Quarterly, 26(3): 131-143.