The Crucial Skill Your Child Needs to Recognize and Control Emotions
Kyle and Kayla were a handful and their parents had tried everything from a strict diet to mental health apps for kids. Although they loved their children beyond words, Mom and Dad were exhausted, and so were their preschool teachers.
Kyle frequently wet his pants even though he had received hours of potty training. He was prone to minor injuries while playing, but didn’t even seem to notice when he had a cut or bruise. When asked if he was cold or hungry, he often just didn’t know—even when he was shivering intensely or hadn’t eaten for hours. He struggled to do simple things other kids did, like knowing when he needed to go to the bathroom rather than wetting his pants, or taking turns when playing games.
Kayla seemed to be a “drama queen”. Everything seemed to upset her. The playroom was too hot or too cold or too bright or too noisy. A minor paper cut could lead to a major meltdown. She frequently complained about tummy aches and other aches and pains. She worried incessantly about minor disturbances, such as the band-aid her caregiver put on her finger, or the fact that one of her crayons was missing.
As different as Kyle and Kayla seem to be, their behavior stems from the same cause: Faulty interoceptive awareness.
Interoception: The Eighth Sense
Interoception refers to our ability to detect, process, and understand internal sensations. It is sometimes described as “the eighth sense”. When our bladder is full, we feel pressure in that area of our body and we interpret this as the need to get to the backroom quickly. When our heart is beating fast from a rush of adrenaline, we notice it and we figure out whether it is physical (due to our having run up the stairs) or emotional (due to having our goals thwarted).
Kyle’s behavioral problems stem from underdeveloped interoceptive awareness. Children with underdeveloped interoceptive awareness often experience difficulty with toilet training. They also frequently feel “hangry” because they can’t tell if they’re hungry or not. They come home covered in minor cuts or bruises because they have a very high pain tolerance. Like these children, Kyle is often unaware of what he is feeling inside. Stomach grumbling, shivering, frustration—none of these sensory signals capture his awareness. He responds reflexively to these signals rather than processing them consciously and choosing how to respond. If his bladder is full, he urinates. If he injures himself, the pain signal doesn’t register, and he continues doing whatever has his attention at the moment. If his stomach growls, he doesn’t notice – and then he has an emotional meltdown because his blood sugar is low. He struggles to keep up with the other kids in simple activities because the sensory signals that are crucial for coordinating his muscles and directing his attention simply don’t get through.
Kayla’s behavioral problems stem from hyper-responsive interoceptive awareness. Children with hyper-responsive interoception often exhibit extreme impulses and reactions to sensations (such as temperature or noise). They have great difficulty focusing on what’s happening in their environment because they are simply overwhelmed by all the sensations they are experiencing. They frequently seem to act like “worrywarts” who obsess over minor annoyances. Kayla feels everything happening inside her so intensely that these internal signals highjack her attention. Her body sends a signal that it is cold, and that signal is received at a high volume. She can’t attend to anything else because her body is screaming that she is cold. She is hyperaware of minor pain signals or other signals of discomfort. Because she feels everything intensely all the time, she obsesses about things that seem trivial to other people.
In the realm of social emotional learning skills, a well-tuned interoception system is necessary to help us understand what we’re feeling and how best to respond. If our interoception is faulty, we respond reflexively, lashing out without even realizing we’re angry, or bursting into tears without realizing that we’re feeling so sad. Adults who lack interoceptive awareness can be challenging as romantic partners, coworkers, or bosses. Children who lack interoceptive awareness often end up “working your last nerve” without even realizing they are doing so.
Although autism often coexists with interoceptive dysfunction, they are not the same thing. Most young children have difficulty identifying their emotions. They experience sensations in their bodies in response to events in their environments, but they often can’t make a connection between what just happened and what they are feeling. As a result, they are subject to outbursts. Importantly, research has shown that interoception is often impaired in autistic children, but not in autistic adults. This suggests that autistic children just take more time to develop this crucial skill than other children.
Individual Differences in Interoception’s Impact on Social Success
People differ in their ability to sense and process internal sensations, and those with better interoception are more socially skilled and have better emotion regulation. As a result, they are more resilient in the face of stress.
Resilience is the ability to positively adapt to stress, trauma, and adversity. Properly tuned interoceptive awareness is directly related to resilience because it allows the person to notice an internal sensory signal, link it to a particular source, and choose a goal-directed action that can restore emotional balance. The results of one study on interoception and resilience show this connection quite vividly: People performed a simple attention task while having their brains scanned (via functional MRI). The catch is that they wore a breathing mask that periodically greatly reduced the amount of oxygen they received, which people usually perceive as an anxiety-triggering threat. People who scored low on measures of resilience showed reduced attention to bodily signals of oxygen deprivation but greater activation in brain areas triggered feelings of anxiety. In other words, they felt distressed when their oxygen levels dropped, but they didn’t learn to anticipate that feeling or what to do about it when it happened.
It should come as no surprise that interoception is also directly linked to feelings of social connection. Interoceptive awareness helps people figure out the emotional meaning of signals in social situations. When social situations become challenging, people who reflexively shift too much attention to the external environment and away from what they are feeling hinder their ability to respond effectively. As a result, they respond inappropriately or take offense when none was intended. The final result of this inadequate interoceptive awareness is often loneliness and social isolation.
Clear links have been found between inadequate interoception and psychological disorders, including depression, anxiety, and addiction. Some researchers have gone so far as to suggest that inadequate interoception may make people particularly susceptible to mental health challenges.
Trauma can throw a monkey wrench into an individual’s interoceptive sense. Interoception specialist Kelly Mahler points out that people who have a history of trauma often report that they are completely disassociated from their body sensations. As a result, they’re missing out on important clues about how they are feeling. This in turn makes it hard for them to manage the way they feel. This lack of emotional regulation then leads to more dissociation or inappropriate behavior. Somatic therapy is a form of therapy that is particularly successful in treating trauma-based dysregulation of interoception. The focus of somatic therapy is not on straightening out thought patterns but instead on providing a sense of safety and security that allows the individual to tap into their internal physical and emotional states without fear of becoming overwhelmed.
Interoception Can Be Taught
It takes time for children to learn to pay attention to their body’s signals and impulses, recognize patterns in those signals, and then identify each with a particular emotion. Some children, however, need help in learning this vital social emotional learning skill. Mental Health apps for kids can help with this and so can training children in interoceptive awareness!
There are five stages to the process of training interoceptive awareness.
- Notice: The first step is noticing that a sensation is occurring, such as a tummy ache or feeling frustrated.
- Name: It is crucial that the child learn to name the sensation being experienced. Naming the sensation allows the child to activate brain areas involved in choosing how to act rather than acting reflexively. It helps to have the child also indicate where the sensation is felt, such as “My tummy feels like I need to go to the bathroom”, or “My eyes feel like they want to cry.”
- Link feelings: The next step is to attach a feeling to the named sensation, such as “I feel sad” when the child’s eyes fill up with tears.
- Understand the impact: The child needs to understand the future impact of the sensation they are feeling, such as “If I don’t go to the bathroom right now, I will poop in my pants”, or “If I don’t ask for a hug right now, I will cry really hard.”
- Manage: The final step is to take action, such as going to the bathroom (or telling a caregiver that they need to go to the bathroom), or asking for a hug because “I feel sad”.
According to Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA), one of the most well respected and recognized pediatric neuropsychology and integrative treatment practices in New England, the following activities vastly improve children’s interoceptive awareness:
Language. Verbal interactions can be crafted to draw your child’s attention to internal cues and bodily sensations. It is easy to model this behavior by verbally describing the choices you make based on your own interoception. For example, you might say,
“I’m feeling cold right now, so I’m going to put on a sweater.”
“My mouth is really dry, so I’m going to drink some water.”
You can also make explicit connections between your child’s requests or behavior and how you think they are feeling inside. For example, you might say,
“You asked me for a drink of water. Are you thirsty? Is your mouth dry?”
“I notice you are crossing your legs and holding your tummy. I think you need to use the bathroom. Do you want to use the bathroom?”
Check your pulse. While your child is sitting quietly, show them how to feel their pulse. Ask them to describe what they feel. Is it slow or fast? Does it feel like a drumbeat or feathers fluttering? Then have them run in place and do the same thing. This activity essentially gives your child biofeedback about the connection between their actions and their body’s sensations.
Progressive muscle relaxation. This can be done as a game. Have your child deliberately tense and then relax each muscle in their body. “Squeeze your toes! Now relax them! Can you feel the difference? Now squeeze your lower legs!” and so on.
Mindfulness. Yes, children can practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is nothing more than tapping into what is happening inside our bodies and letting ourselves feel what is there. An easy way to practice mindfulness is interactive mental health apps for kids! There are also a plethora of online resources and articles with more calming techniques. One fun mindfulness activity for children can be found here.
The Department of Education for South Australia has put together a fun activity booklet that can be downloaded by parents to use in helping build their children’s interoceptive awareness of physical sensations and emotional states. It can be found here.
Another very useful tool to help children develop social emotional learning skills and regulate their emotions is the CASEL framework. According to this framework, preschoolers’ developmental tasks include the following:
- Begin peer interaction while managing emotional arousal
- Initiate prosocial behaviors and interactions, along with friendships
- Stay connected with adults
- Understand and manage basic emotional expressions, situations, and experiences
- Begin to follow social rules, like taking turns
Improving Interoceptive Awareness in Adults
Some adults also struggle with interoceptive awareness, which makes it difficult for them to model this vital skill for their children. The good news is that it is possible to improve interoceptive awareness at any age.
The results of one study showed this quite vividly. Adult participants underwent one week of interoceptive training that required them to focus on their heartbeats and decide whether or not they were in sync with an external stimulus. They were also required to perform a decision-making task in which they were offered two gambles, one with a guaranteed small payoff and one with a risky larger payoff. After 1 week of interoceptive training, the participants showed enhanced interoceptive accuracy and reductions in anxiety. Furthermore, their decision-making processes shifted in a more rational direction, making them less likely to take risky bets.
Mindfulness meditation and yoga have been shown to improve interoception in adults. There are also several simple activities that adults can do to improve their interoception.
- Heartbeat: Take your pulse on your wrist or throat, simply become aware of your heart beating for 2-3 minutes.
- Breathing: Focus on your breathing for 2-3 minutes, noticing how each breath enters your nose and travels down through your body to your diaphragm. Feel your chest and belly rising and falling with each breath. Then check out this article for more breathing tips.
- Scan your internal landscape. Lie down comfortably or drop to your hands and knees, and close your eyes. Carefully tune in to each area of your body, becoming aware of how each area feels. Is there tightness in your neck? Do your legs want to move? Do you feel the need to stretch your back? Then just do it. If emotions arise, notice those as well. Don’t fight them or try to figure out why you feel that way. Just let yourself feel them and notice where they reside in your body. Let your body do what it feels like doing, but notice carefully what is happening.
- Sound and vibration: Make sounds that cause a vibration in your head, throat, or chest, such as humming. Notice where in your body you feel those vibrations. Experiment with high tones, low tones, and everything in between.
- Periodic daily “check-ins”: Several times a day, check in with your internal landscape. Scan your body and notice what you are feeling physically and emotionally. Try to label the sensations and emotions you are feeling, such as “My back is tight”, “I’m hungry”, or “I’m feeling content/blue.”
Mental Health Apps for Kids and Other Next Steps
As we’ve discussed, Interoception is the perception of sensations taking place inside the body. Once your child learns how to become aware of what they are feeling, they can choose how to respond rather than being triggered by events or acting on impulses without thinking. Without this vital social emotional learning skill, children struggle to regulate emotions and find it difficult to develop winning social skills.
One fun and easy way to help your child learn about interoception is with mental health apps for kids! There’s a new Zoy app that covers everything from read aloud stories to a calming corner.
If you struggle with tapping into your own physical and emotional sensations, the new Zoy app can also help you take steps on improving this skill. You’ll find that your social interactions will improve at home and work as your ability to recognize, label, and choose how to respond to your inner signals improves. You’ll also discover that you have more patience. If you understand that your child struggles with managing their internal sensations, you’ll feel more compassion and more motivated to help rather than getting pushed beyond your coping limit. If you understand that you struggle with understanding what you’re feeling and why, you will be motivated to stop, scan, and decide how to respond to stressful situations.
Still looking for more next steps? We’ve got you covered. You can click here to comb through our inventory of social emotional learning articles that will help you get to the next level!