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The Buzz: Emotion Regulation and Young Children with Developmental Disabilities

Author: Angela Manessis

11 March 2021

Children are resilient, but what about moms?

Children are not born with the ability to naturally regulate emotions. Instead, they build coping strategies through modeling, environmental exploration, and direct instruction. Healthy social and emotional development is rooted in nurturing and responsive relationships with family members and other caregivers, including those who provide care in early learning settings (Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University). Early emotional coping skills development sets the stage for academic and other quality of life outcomes.

In children with a developmental or learning disability, this is particularly challenging because they have delays in areas of development involving social-emotional wellbeing and peer interactions. In children with developmental disabilities, emotion regulation and emotional development is linked to cognitive development (Baurain et al., 2013) due to the neural mechanisms – brain synapses and chemical composition – of specific developmental disorders, which in turn exacerbate emotional responses (Martel, 2009). This is all because there are certain brain regions that are affected by deficits in cognition and emotion regulation, such as the prefrontal cortex (front of the brain) and amygdala (limbic system).

What does this look like for parents, educators, and other active caregivers in a child’s life?

Tantrums, meltdowns, reports of behavior deficits in school, and often poor academic performance. We often see children diagnosed with psychiatric disorders, such as anxiety and depression, but with appropriate interventions, this can be offset.

When children struggle, parents struggle as well. COVID-19 has exemplified mental disorders in both adults and children. Parents are struggling to help their children at home both with remote learning and coping through the past 12 months.

In our current study, we asked mothers of children with Autism how they have been coping the past 12 months, by measuring how stress from COVID-19 causes an increase in anxiety and depressive symptoms, which result in physical pain in the form of headaches.

A survey-based longitudinal study measuring headache intensity from the onset of school closures through now was administered in schools. Mothers were asked to rate their emotional, psychological, and neurological pain and symptoms on a scale of 1-5.

What we are seeing is that all the stress in the past year has exacerbated physical pain causing an increase in headaches, as well as an increase in maternal anxiety and depression. When mothers reportedly downregulated (controlled) their emotional responses, the severity was less but when mothers reported suppressing (lack of control) their emotion, the severity was intense.

So, what does this all mean and what do we do?

We hope that with effective interventions such as parent training in schools, parent counseling, and interventions for children, we can help mother’s cope when faced with continued, long term, adversity which will in turn help build healthy coping skills in children with and without developmental disabilities.

Here are some ways to help cope with stress for both parent and child:

  1. Take short meditation or yoga breaks. There are ample free resources such as Headspace NY.

  2. Take a walk to gather your thoughts.

  3. Spend quality time with your child doing something you both enjoy.

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