Autistic pre-teens and teenagers might know the words for emotions but still have trouble recognising them in themselves and others, particularly when they’re upset. And emotional problems in autistic teenagers can threaten our ability to see them as a whole person. How can we help our neurodivergent children with managing emotions, so that they can keep themselves and others safe, and show their amazing selves to the world?
Why are Emotions So Challenging in Autism?
People on the spectrum may have trouble recognizing their own emotions, or they may feel emotions more intensely. “according to Kelly Battle Beck, Ph.D., of the Regulation of Emotion in ASD Adults, Children and Teens (REAACT) Research Program at University of Pittsburgh
Social challenges, sensory sensitivities, and difficulty with change all may increase frustration and stress levels, Beck says. And so does trying to fit into a society that is not attuned to autism. “So it makes sense that you will see more meltdowns or more dysregulation when all of these things combine,” she says.
Do They Have the Skills They Need?
Some psychologists say we should broaden the way we think about meltdowns. “The old school way of thinking was that when a child had a tantrum, parents should respond with a negative consequence,” says Amy Keefer, Ph.D., clinical psychologist at the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at Kennedy Krieger Institute in Maryland. “There are still times when we need to think about the consequences of tantrums, but what we also have to always think about is: Why is this child having tantrums? Do they have the skills they need to regulate themselves?“
“One of the very first things you need to be able to do to regulate your emotions is recognize they are happening and how intense they are,” Keefer says. “Some individuals with autism have a hard time with that. Some may even have a condition called alexithymia where they are not able to recognize most of the body signals that indicate their emotions.”
Some people do recognize their emotions, but not until they are too intense for them to manage, she says.
Learning to Recognize Emotional Changes
A therapist may help children learn to recognize the physical signs that they are getting upset, such as their muscles becoming tense and changes in their breathing. The goal is to have children notice “little things in their body that are signalling that they are having an emotion right now.”
Children may also be taught ways of coping with their emotions before they lose control. For example, they may go to a quiet place, or if they have language, think about something they could say to themselves to calm down.
Parents can reinforce coping strategies by describing aloud the ways they regulate their own emotions. For example, if a mother spills juice, she can calmly say to her child, “That’s too bad, but it’s OK. I will wipe it up and pour a new glass.”
The role of parents
It has been reported that parents of neurodivergent children with difficult to manage behaviours may have higher levels of stress. This stress can make it more difficult to deal with behaviours in healthy ways, according to Rachel Andersen in Autism Parenting Magazine.
Combating this will require us to be aware of our own emotions, an understanding of our child, and a willingness to operate from a different perspective–our child’s. One of the most impactful things we can do as parents is be a safe, understanding, warm, and inviting place to land, rest, and reciprocate love.
"I don’t know how many times I have heard or read parenting tips from experts in gentle parenting, child psychologists, and other parents and felt empowered only to have that feeling dashed when I realize that the implementation of the skills I learned is like beating my head up against a brick wall. Does that mean that those tips don’t apply to my child?
The reality is, they do apply to him, but as a neurodivergent child, he needs me to practice them for myself, and present them to him from a perspective that makes sense to him."
The first step is learning how to manage our own emotions. This is difficult as most of us were not taught how. Current autism research suggests that though parental stress can be reduced by helping children with emotion regulation, parents could benefit greatly from support for themselves regardless of where their children are with their behaviour. There are options now for parents that were not available before.
Recognising emotions: autistic pre-teens and teenagers
Here are ideas to help:
- Point out your child’s emotions. Start with emotions like happiness, fear and anger, and then move on to more complicated emotions like jealousy, frustration or embarrassment. You could say, ‘I can see that you’re frustrated. Are you having trouble with that guitar chord?’
- Encourage your child to describe sensations in their body. For example, if your child seems worried, you could suggest that it feels like a ‘blender in their stomach’. Or you could point out how their heart beats faster when they’re feeling scared.
- Point out emotions in characters in movies. For example, you could watch Inside Out together and talk about how the characters’ behaviour shows what they’re feeling.
This is a useful tool for helping your child move from recognising emotions to recognising emotional intensity. Here’s an example of a ladder picture for anger.
You draw a picture of a ladder and give each rung a number from 1 to 5, plus a label:
- Rung 1 is not angry, everything is OK.
- Rung 2 is a little angry – for example, when I forget to take my homework to school.
- Rung 3 is moderately angry – for example, when someone is mean and plays a joke on me.
- Rung 4 is very angry – for example, when someone pushes me over on purpose.
- Rung 5 is extremely angry, and I’m going to explode like a volcano – for example, when someone deliberately rips up my work.
Then you ask your child to point at the rung that best describes how they feel.
For the labels, you could use pictures instead of words. For example, the label on rung 1 could be a smiley face emoji, and the label on rung 5 could be an enraged face or exploding head emoji. Or instead of a ladder, you could use a thermometer picture. For example, instead of rungs, you use temperature levels and labels.
Understanding and accepting emotions
If your autistic child understands why they feel the way they do, it can help them accept their emotions.
You can help your child understand why they feel the way they do by explaining how thoughts can lead to feelings. For example, you could draw a picture of a dog with a child. Then you could say, ‘If a dog jumps up at you and you think it’s going to bite, you’ll feel scared. But if you think what a fun, playful dog it is, you might feel excited instead’.
Or you could use comic strip conversations showing characters with various facial expressions and thought bubbles to help your child link emotions with thoughts and behaviour. For example, you could draw stick figures of your child and a friend to illustrate a conversation. Use different colours to show what they’re thinking, saying and feeling.
As part of understanding emotions, it’s important for your child to know that everyone experiences a range of emotions. For example, you could say, ‘It’s normal to feel all sorts of things, like happy, sad, excited, jealous. Sometimes feelings are big and sometimes they’re small. All these feelings are OK’. It might also help to talk about how big feelings will pass with time.
Managing emotions in autistic teenagers
Strong emotions can be overwhelming for autistic children and teenagers. They often need help to manage strong emotions and calm down from them. But they can learn techniques to manage these emotions.
Below are some ideas and strategies to help autistic children and teenagers with managing strong emotions. As you use these strategies with your child, remember that learning to manage strong emotions takes practice. It’s good for your child to practise when they’re calm. This will make it easier for your child to remember and use the strategies when they’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed.
Calming down steps
You can help autistic children and teenagers calm down from strong emotions using a 5-step process:
- Notice the emotion.
- Name the emotion.
- Pause and say nothing.
- Support your child while they calm down.
- Address the issue that sparked the emotion.
This process is explained in more detail in our articles on helping children calm down and helping teenagers calm down. You can adapt the strategies in these articles for your autistic child.
Your child could try some relaxation exercises to see what works for them. For example, they could count to 10, take 5 deep breaths, or think about something that makes them happy and calm.
They could also try using their fingers to focus on their breathing. Using a finger, your child slowly traces around their hand, breathing in when they trace up to the top of a finger and breathing out when they trace back down a finger. Repeat for all 10 fingers.
You could check out our breathing exercises and muscle relaxation techniques for more ideas.
Your child could clap their hands if they’re excited or squeeze a cushion or a sensory toy if they’re angry. Fidget toys from a sensory kit or stimming might also help.
If your child’s sensory-seeking behaviour isn’t appropriate, you might be able to replace it with a different behaviour that meets the same sensory need. For example, if your child rocks, they could use a rocking chair instead. If they pick their skin, they could fiddle with rings or a bracelet or pick off clear nail polish instead.
Your child could go for a walk, get a drink of water, or find a quiet place to sit.
Change of activity
Encourage your child to take a brain break and listen to their favourite music, read a book or listen to a podcast about their special interests.
Your child could go for a short run, kick a football, do some push-ups or shoot some basketball hoops.
We all have days where we are emotional wrecks. This is especially true for teens and young adults. As a child moves from childhood into teen and young adulthood, their emotions are evolving and they need to learn to access and utilize the tools they have been provided more independently. Teach your child they can be their own safe space. And, emotional understanding is the key for parents and children with ASD. The more we as parents understand autism, our children, and their triggers, the more successful we will be. The more our children with ASD understand themselves, the more confident they will be.