How to Teach Clients Self-Regulation Skills

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An important role for counselors is teaching clients how to self-regulate. This instruction encourages them to work toward keeping harmful or disruptive emotions in check and thinking before they act. People who self-regulate are better able to see the good in other people, identify opportunities where others might not, act in accordance with their values and have clear goals and motivations. Most important, they are able to maintain this mindset during emotionally challenging situations. Although self-regulation is key to healthy behavior, traumatic or emotional incidents can make this process difficult and even lead to self-dysregulation.

Once clients learn how to self-regulate, they may be better prepared to handle life’s obstacles and make the most of the situation at hand. Use these tips to teach your clients self-regulation techniques to maintain their mental and physical health:

1. Emphasize the importance of identifying the specific emotions they/others feel.

Self-regulation is one part of the five elements of emotional intelligence, a concept developed by psychologist Daniel Goleman. In addition to self-regulation, emotional intelligence includes knowing your emotions, motivating yourself, managing relationships and recognizing and understanding the emotions of others.
Before your clients can master emotional intelligence, the first step is understanding their feelings. While nearly everyone can determine the difference between feeling happy and sad, knowing how emotions like jealousy and envy, and shame and embarrassment differ is fundamental to properly dealing with emotions. Ask your clients if they can explain the similarities and differences between these emotions and which ones they identify with.
One author in Psychology Today recently explained the importance of recognizing specific emotions in others as well. By practicing self-regulation, your clients will be better able to respond to situations when they understand the emotions other people are experiencing. For example, if a person’s spouse is upset, knowing whether he or she is feeling embarrassment along with anger will determine how that person should respond. If your clients are unsure, suggest that they ask their spouse for help understanding exactly how he or she feels.

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2. Enhance self-regulation through goal setting.

According to the American Counseling Association, research has shown that reaching goals affects motivation, self-efficacy and learning, making goal-setting essential to improving self-regulation skills. Goals make it easier for people to self-evaluate and understand the progress they have made. Encourage your clients to establish clear goals to focus their attention on positive behaviors that must be performed to meet these goals. Incorporate specific performance standards and recommend setting proximal, short-term goals, as they tend to result in higher motivation and better self-regulation. Make sure that your clients’ aspirations aren’t overly easy to attain because that will not motivate them. Goals that are too difficult will have the same effect, so work with your clients to find objectives that are moderately challenging for the best results.

3. Encourage adaptability.

If your clients are showing difficulty with adapting to life changes, their ability to self-regulate will be inhibited. It is important that they cope well with change and adapt their behavior to different situations easily. People who resist change often experience unhealthy levels of stress and anxiety that can lead to poor physical and mental health. Consider using the Transactional Model of Stress and Coping — a framework for assessing the processes behind coping with stressful or emotional events — to assist your clients in viewing changes objectively and analyzing the different ways they can respond. Working with this model will help your clients re-frame their negative thoughts and see change as a positive opportunity for self-development.

4. Practice strategies for self-awareness.

One of the most essential factors for self-regulation is self-awareness. A large part of having good self-awareness is knowing your strengths and weaknesses. Help your clients identify what makes them angry or feel negative. For example, what is it about other people’s behavior that triggers their anger? It may be beneficial to make a list of all your clients’ triggers and the regrettable responses they’ve had. Then, identify the behaviors or actions that were not useful and replace them with positive alternatives. If you find that one of your clients snaps when he or she is feeling overwhelmed at work, encourage that client to pencil in a break or two throughout the day to collect his or her thoughts and relax.

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