How Nature-Based Occupational Therapy Helps Kids Regulate Their Emotions
If your child has a problem with their foot, you get them into physical therapy.
If your child struggles to speak, you look into speech therapy.
Yet, the path forward can feel confusing when you have a child who struggles with emotional regulation. Here’s what you do know…
They’re melting down, acting out, or unable to deal with the smallest change. And these big emotions are making daily life hard. As a parent, you’re weary and lost on how to make things better. Plus, teachers are calling, peer relationships are strained and your child isn’t living their happiest, fullest life.
When do you seek help for emotional challenges? And what kind of professional are you even looking for?
Ok, take a deep breath. You’ve landed in a safe place. Let’s start at the beginning and work our way to some practical ideas.
At Bearfoot OT, we’re an outdoor pediatric occupational therapy practice that addresses social, emotional, motor, and sensory challenges to launch kids into days of joy and success.
Keep reading to better understand what emotional regulation is all about. Plus, we’ll share how we address emotional regulation in our San Francisco and Marin outdoor occupational therapy practice.
Understanding Emotional Regulation in Kids
When it comes to big emotions in kids, we need to begin with an understanding of emotional regulation and how that impacts daily life.
What is Emotional Regulation?
In a nutshell, everyone has emotions - BIG and small. Emotional regulation is how to become aware of, and more importantly, react to situations and emotions¹. It’s how you calm yourself down, delay gratification, manage disappointment, or work through conflict with others².
This means that if your child has some challenging behaviors or struggles to make friends, addressing emotional regulation might be an important part of the puzzle.
So what do emotional regulation issues look like in a practical sense?
In everyday life, we hear parents describe emotional regulation challenges in these ways…
“Transitions are hard. My child needs so many prompts, gets frustrated, and often melts down.”
My child has big reactions to things that don’t seem to bother other kids.
“My child can’t handle it if things don’t go their way. They get really upset and can’t let it go.”
“I feel like my child lacks emotional maturity. I thought they’d grow out of the meltdowns and inflexibility.”
“Everything feels like a conflict. My child can’t seem to get along with siblings, peers, teachers, or us as parents.”
“When my child is upset or overwhelmed, they sometimes act out physically - hitting, kicking, biting, or something else.”
Emotional regulation is a dynamic skill that is impacted by development, environment, personality, and experiences². Some kids are more naturally chill or able to shake things off. Other kids have personalities that lean towards being reactive, anxious, or emotional.
It’s worthwhile to note that kids with ADHD, autism or sensory differences might struggle more with emotional regulation. This is due to how closely the brain and sensory systems are tied to emotions².
Why emotional regulation matters.
When your child struggles with big emotions, it impacts a lot.
Siblings might argue more. You might find yourself walking on eggshells to prevent a meltdown.
Or you might avoid going out altogether as a family. It’s not uncommon for parents to start questioning their parenting skills because strategies and techniques that work for other children seem to make things worse for their kid. Beyond family dynamics, emotional regulation is key for success in school and daily life. In fact, emotional regulation is a predictor of social competence and linked to academic success¹. That’s because friendships need emotional understanding, give-and-take, trust, and the ability to work out differences.
Daily life in the classroom is full of situations that prompt emotions and test our ability to emotionally regulate. Without flexibility or resilience, your child will struggle through schedule changes, moments of disappointment, or friends who want to do something different.
How Do Kids Get Better at Emotional Regulation?
Here’s the first thing for you to know, emotional regulation is a developmental skill¹. Before the age of 2-3, children have very little ability to control their emotions and impulses.
As kids grow, you should see an increasing ability to self-regulate emotions to deal with things like frustration, unexpected changes, or even settling down after something exciting.
This is a big, complex, robust skill that continues to develop into adulthood. Actually, to be fair, there are a lot of adults still working on healthy ways to manage their emotions.
Head Outdoors for Activities to Practice Emotional Regulation
The good news is that emotional regulation is a skill that improves with practice². Phew!
And, ta-da … the outdoor setting of nature-based occupational therapy is the perfect place for practicing this developmental skill.
Here’s why. To improve emotional regulation, your child needs opportunities to practice underlying skills like persistence, patience, flexibility, and problem-solving¹. These are the exact skills that are baked into all of our therapeutic activities of outdoor occupational therapy.
When your child needs to hike or climb, they’re working on persistence to continue even when it feels hard.
When they’re building with rocks and it falls over, they’re working on trial and error that requires dealing with the frustration of failing.
When a favorite path is blocked by a puddle or a tree, they get to practice flexibility and dealing with change.
Even the clothes and changing weather offer chances to practice being flexible according to the situation. Don’t love shoes? They make it a lot easier to climb this tree. Hate wearing a jacket? Let’s practice wearing it so you don’t get cold and wet as we check out the puddles brought by this week’s rain.
Here’s the cool part.
When given the big fun of outdoor adventures, kids want to do the work. As a result, challenging emotions get buffered by the fun and reward of great outdoor play and adventure³.
This means kids can experience those big feelings. Yet, keep moving forward. This gives them practice not only with physical or social skills but also get better at the underlying skill of emotional regulation.
Outdoors = An Environment That Supports Emotional Work
In terms of your child’s ability to deal with big emotions — context makes a HUGE difference. That’s because emotions are directly connected to the body, brain, and sensory systems². Emotional regulation improves when everything is in balance from hunger, sensory preferences, and thoughts.
Some environmental factors in emotional regulation:
Number of demands: When more is going on in the environment, it becomes harder to remain calm and regulated.
Sensory variables: A sensory environment that is irritating and overwhelming can make it hard to maintain emotional control.
Emotional fatigue: Situational context matters, kids need time and space to return to neutral after feeling disappointment or frustration.
What you’ll see is that your child will show differences in their ability to regulate their emotions based on the setting. This is where outdoor occupational therapy shines as the ideal way to address emotional regulation. That’s because the natural backdrop is automatically calming⁴. The immediate outdoor feel is different. We’re talking about different noise levels, lighting, and even energy from indoor settings like a busy classroom or clinic.
This means emotions don’t grow as big when your child is outdoors. And it takes less energy to regulate them. Think of nature like an emotional sponge that absorbs negative feelings like frustration and anger — revealing more capacity for calm, joy, and perseverance.
Apart from the different sensory energy of the outdoors, on a chemical level, being in nature results in the release of calming chemicals in the parasympathetic nervous system⁵.
All put together, the outdoor environment is good for your child emotionally. This makes it easier for kids to manage their emotions and work on — and through — challenges during sessions. It also helps them maintain a sense of calm and well-being through the other activities of their week³﹐⁵.
Parents as Models, Coaches, and Sources of Calm
When it comes to emotional regulation, YOU as the parent are the key! Through relationships, caregivers provide the safe and supportive environment your child needs to begin to label and appropriately express emotions¹.
For many parents, addressing emotional regulation in a child starts with an important mindset shift around what is a choice and what is skill development.
When you’re frustrated about negative behaviors related to emotional regulation, remind yourself that what you're seeing is a missing skill versus a specific choice of your child to be difficult or disobedient.
This helps you move towards focusing on how you can support skill growth versus issuing punishments for something your child doesn’t know how to do.
From this vantage point, you’re better positioned to step into a role to help your child build needed skills around emotional regulation.
To do this:
Be a positive model of moving through your own emotions.
Coach your child to name and find their way through big emotions – not to ignore or stuff their big feelings down and out of sight.
Take a deep breath. Take a break. Do what you need to be a source of calm through their big emotions.
Through this process, you’re likely to become more aware of the importance of regulating your own emotions when your child is going through big, difficult emotions. It’s all too easy to join them in the chaos but you’re better able to support them when you’re calm yourself.
And before you start shouting at the computer screen - WE GET IT. This is not an easy mission!
That’s why partnering with parents is a big part of our program at Bearfoot OT. Our comprehensive program includes parent communication to make it easy to connect with you to provide tools, recommendations, and support outside of the therapy session
Outdoor Occupational Therapy Sessions With a Ripple Effect on Daily Life
If you’re like the parents we talk to, you want to help your child go from days of disaster to successfully managing their emotions, focus, and body.
That means not just having great sessions in the woods. You want your child to have fewer meltdowns, and more positive moments between yourself, your child, and everyone else in the picture.
Our work starts in the woods but overflows into daily life. With practice and the right parent support, we’ve seen kids learn to handle big emotions without losing their special spark.
That’s why we designed our outdoor occupational therapy program for kids that include all the elements needed for significant change. That’s dynamic outdoor OT sessions, digital weekly updates, and high-touch parent support.
Visit our website to learn more about our program.
Housman, D.K. The importance of emotional competence and self-regulation from birth: a case for the evidence-based emotional cognitive social early learning approach. ICEP 11, 13 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40723-017-0038-6
Eisenberg, N., & Sulik, M. J. (2012). Emotion-Related Self-Regulation in Children. Teaching of Psychology, 39(1), 77–83. https://doi.org/10.1177/0098628311430172
Roberts, A, Joe Hinds & Paul M. Camic (2020) Nature activities and wellbeing in children and young people: a systematic literature review, Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 20:4, 298-318, DOI: 10.1080/14729679.2019.1660195
Franco, L. S., Shanahan, D. F., & Fuller, R. A. (2017). A Review of the Benefits of Nature Experiences: More Than Meets the Eye. International journal of environmental research and public health, 14(8), 864. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph14080864
Richardson, M., McEwan, K., Maratos, F. et al. Joy and Calm: How an Evolutionary Functional Model of Affect Regulation Informs Positive Emotions in Nature. Evolutionary Psychological Science 2, 308–320 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40806-016-0065-5