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Perspective | How to use mirror neurons to help kids learn emotional regulation

Tips on how to model that process to children.

Dysregulation and self-regulation: As part of Raising Resilience’s series on executive functioning skills, the organization is sharing highlights from its recent Connections Café session with The Guidance Team. This post summarizes Marcee Ben-Menachem’s section on self-regulation – what it is; what dysregulation looks like during the elementary school and high school years; and how using mirror neurons can help kids regulate.

This post has been republished with permission from Raising Resilience. 

What is emotional regulation?

Regulation is not about getting rid of an uncomfortable feeling. It is the ability to be WITH an uncomfortable feeling and still be OK.

The American Psychological Association defines self-regulation as ”the ability of an individual to modulate an emotion or set of emotions.”

When you shift your perspective on this, it starts to become clear that “All behavior is an attempt at regulation.” — Lisa Dion

However, before a child can productively regulate their own emotions they need the process modeled to them. More so, they need the process implemented for them and that is where mirror neurons come into play. A parent or caregiver can use their own regulation to balance their child’s emotional state.

“The mind’s ability to regulate emotional processes is essentially the ability of the brain to modulate the flow of arousal and activation throughout its circuits.” — Dan Siegel

What does dysregulation look like?

Ages 5 to 12: Dysregulation looks like arguing, resisting, shutting down, aggression with peers or family members, nervousness, refusal, and anxiety, etc.

Ages 13 to 19: Dysregulation looks like refusing to engage, risky behavior, arguing with authority/picking fights, physical aggression, fears, depressive withdrawn behavior, etc.

How can we help our kids regulate?

We can use mirror neurons.

As caregivers, one of the most important things we can do to help our children learn to regulate is to authentically name OUR OWN internal state out loud and model our own regulation. We instinctively regulate through one another using the mirror neuron system.

“Mirror neuron system is a group of specialized neurons that “mirrors” the actions and behavior of others. The involvement of mirror neuron system (MNS) is implicated in neurocognitive functions (social cognition, language, empathy, theory of mind) and neuropsychiatric disorders. MNS discovery is considered to be the most important landmark in neuroscience research during the last decade.” Source: Mirror neuron system (

Here’s how you can help your child when they’re dysregulated:

Be authentic. NO FAKING.

Connect with yourself. How do you know you are feeling triggered? Are you tense? Are you shaky, hot, numb? Is your heart racing?

Label your own feeling or sensation out loud. “I’m feeling scared right now” or “I don’t know what’s going to happen” or “My heart is racing.”

Model through regulating yourself. Remember to be real. This is NOT role playing.

“We are hard-wired to perceive the mind of another being.” — Dr. Dan Siegel

What not to do

When your child is dysregulated, they are less likely to effectively process what you are saying because their prefrontal cortex is off-line. Try to avoid labeling or stating your child’s emotions or sensations or telling your child what to do to calm down. It doesn’t hurt to try these things, just don’t expect them to process it and use the skill in that moment.

What to do

Use strategies to integrate your brain into a wise-mind state, as coined by Dr. Marsha Linehan. The wise mind is where the emotional mind and the reasonable mind intersect. Here are some activities you can do proactively in response to a dysregulated state:

  • Deep breathing
  • Rub arms or legs
  • Get up and walk (pacing is good)
  • Shake out your hands
  • Rock/sway back and forth
  • Move
  • Take a bath
  • Read a book
  • Go outside and breathe
  • Stretch
  • Splash water on your face
  • Get a glass of water or tea
  • Drink through a straw
  • March through transitions
  • Be silly through transitions
  • Meditate
  • Use a fidget toy
  • Squeeze something
  • Jump on a trampoline
  • Do something creative

For a deeper understanding and more hands-on tips, you can view the slides from the Raising Resilience Connections Café executive functioning skills session

This post summarizes Marcee Ben-Menachem’s self-regulation portion from a presentation by the The Guidance Team — Shealeen Kennedy, M.Ed, BCBA, LBA (Building Blocks NW) and Marcee Ben-Menachem, M.Ed., NBCT, LMHCA (Compass Counseling and Consulting).

Reference Sites:
Dr. Dan Siegel Home Page

Editor’s note: Publication of an opinion piece does not mean Seattle’s Child or its staff endorses the views of the author.

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About the Author

April Avey Trabucco

April Avey Trabucco is executive director of Raising Resilience (, which supports Bainbridge Island and beyond with parenting education, resources and connections to help families thrive. Raising Resilience has been a volunteer-driven nonprofit organization since 2003.