Focus Area 6: Behavioral Intervention
2. Emotional Self-Regulation and Dysregulation

As a guiding principle for all behavior interventions, your role is to attend to the positive things you want youth to do and ignore the negative things that are counter-productive to their well-being. In other words, you want to maximize positive behaviors and minimize negative ones as much as you can. The technical term for this is Differential Social Reinforcement.

Of course, this is not easy to do, especially in the moment. A simple example is when you are leading a small group and one or two youth are interrupting. Some youth have a way of interrupting that is very hard to ignore. They say funny or provocative things or blurt out questions. It is very easy to respond to these interruptions rather than ignoring them.

By responding to the interruptions, you may be unintentionally reinforcing negative behavior. You accidentally reinforce the wrong thing and the young people learn that interrupting will be rewarded (get your attention). This leads to an increase in interrupting, the very thing you really did not want as the outcome.

It’s important to note that there are limits to ignoring. If there is violence or other intensely negative behavior, you cannot just use ignoring as your strategy. You must intervene for the safety and well-being of others.

To add complexity, you, yourself, are reinforcement to youth. Youth will want your attention and that is a good and very powerful thing! It helps you build relationships with young people, but as you can see, it can be tricky.

Be mindful about what you reinforce. If you’re not careful, you could actually encourage negative behavior simply by responding to negative behaviors aimed at getting your attention.

Keep in your mind that your goal is to reinforce positive behaviors and reduce negative ones. That is your guiding principle for all youth work.

One of the main things you need to be good at as a youth worker is helping young people understand and manage their emotions, behaviors, and thoughts. No one is perfect at this; it is a skill that takes a lifetime of practice. Some of the youth you work with may actually be in your program as a result of problems or challenges with self-regulation. So, to be effective you need to understand what self-regulation is and your role in helping youth develop this critical skill.


In the report, From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development, Shonkoff and Phillips (2000)1 define self-regulation as a young person’s ability to gain control of bodily functions, manage powerful emotions, and maintain focus and attention. It also involves  directing behavior in order to achieve certain goals, meet certain standards, or reach certain ideals.

More simply put, it means effective self-regulation helps young people make good choices. Self-regulation is the ability to respond to the ongoing demands of experience with the range of emotions and behaviors that are socially tolerable and effective for the situation. In a nutshell, it is healthy coping.

Signs of self-regulation include resiliency, self-management, impulse control, and delayed gratification. As you can imagine, this is hard for everyone, and especially for a youth whose brain isn’t even fully developed. When youth struggle with self-regulation, it can lead to dysregulation. 


Dysregulation is common in the youth you work with. Although the name sounds like it could be a disorder, it’s important to understand that dysregulation is neither a disorder nor a diagnosis.

Emotional dysregulation refers to the inability of a young person to effectively control or regulate their emotional responses to situations, particularly challenging situations.2 These emotional responses are poorly modulated, and do not fall within the conventionally accepted range of emotive responses.

All youth experience difficult events and interactions such as conflict in a relationship, a personal criticism, or perceived abandonment. When in a state of emotional dysregulation, the young person reacts in an emotionally exaggerated manner to these environmental and interpersonal challenges.

As a result, the young person has trouble controlling the duration and/or intensity of their emotions. This can take many forms: bursts of anger, threats or actual violence, uncontrollable crying, accusing, passive-aggressive behaviors, self-harm, lying or manipulating, or creating chaos. Sometimes, conflict may ensue.

When a youth is dysregulated, rational, flexible thinking is diminished, and the young person can feel stuck. The severity of the dysregulated response can vary but in most cases it is enough to disrupt learning, playing, and interpersonal relationships of the young person.

Dysregulation can be a temporary state. But in some youth, it can become the primary way of responding, thus becoming a chronic pattern. Many things can make a youth susceptible to temporary or chronic dysregulation. On any given day, any of these experiences or emotions could contribute to dysregulation:

  • Change of schedule or environment
  • Illness
  • Family events
  • Hunger
  • Anger
  • Loneliness
  • Tiredness
  • Anticipation of a difficult event
  • Social worries
  • Changes in medications
  • Grief or loss
  • Trauma

From your own experience working with youth, there are probably other contributors you can think of as well.

When you notice that a youth is becoming dysregulated, step back and try to understand the factors that are causing it. When working with youth, sometimes you are aware of such factors and other times you are not.

Most youth workers fundamentally believe that youth are not inherently bad. When a youth acts out it is usually because they lack support for healthy development. You may never really know what causes a youth to become dysregulated, or why; the reasons and causes are virtually limitless.

Sometimes it may seem like even the littlest things trigger dysregulation. But usually there is more to it than meets the eye. Here are some of the major factors that can trigger youth toward dysregulation:

  • Inflexible temperament, withdrawal, or poor concentration
  • Low self-esteem or perceived incompetence
  • Anxiety, depression, substance abuse, or other mental health concerns
  • Poor communication and problem-solving skills
  • Extreme need for approval and social support
  • Rebelliousness and anti-social behaviors
  • Parental mental health, drug/alcohol use, or unemployment
  • Family conflict, marital conflict, or divorce
  • Poor parenting, parent-child conflict, or poor attachment with parents
  • Social, emotional, physical, or sexual abuse/maltreatment
  • Peer rejection, bullying, trauma, or witness to violence
  • Stressful events, poor academic achievement, or poverty
  • Loss of close relationship or friends
  • Health issues, poor diet, or sleep deprivation

Being aware of the factors that can trigger youth toward dysregulation is half of the equation. Helping young people learn to identify them and make sense of them is equally important. Next, you’ll learn about a system you can teach youth and use in your work with them. 


Your ability to notice emotional regulation and dysregulation as having certain characteristics that could be thought of as “zones” will give you an easy framework to guide your interactions and interventions with youth. Just like the youth you serve, you also need to work on self-management and will benefit from feedback and support from others.

Throughout any given day, you experience a range of feelings, emotions, and moods. Leah Kuypers3 has categorized those experiences into four zones which she describes in her book, “The Zones of Regulation”: 

  1. BLUE Zone - Your body is running slow, such as when you’re tired, sick, sad, or bored. You simply are not at 100% and are vulnerable.
  1. GREEN Zone - Like a green light, you are “good to go.” Your body may feel happy, calm, and focused. You’re at your peak for handling what life gives you. 
  1. YELLOW Zone - This zone describes when you start to lose control, such as when you’re frustrated, anxious, worried, silly, or surprised. Pay attention, this is a make-or-break stage! 
  1. RED Zone - This zone represents extreme emotions such as anger, terror, and aggression. When you’re in this zone, you are out of control and will have trouble making good decisions.

While Kuypers does not include an ORANGE Zone, you may find that young people frequently experience something between the YELLOW Zone and RED Zone. We’ll call that the ORANGE Zone. Typically, a young person in the ORANGE Zone is feeling strong anger, hurt, or resentment but not actually acting this out in behaviors as they would if in the RED Zone.

Becoming aware of your own zones of regulation is important. It helps you with the critical task of knowing which zone a young person is operating in at any given time. Awareness of your own zone, combined with awareness of the youth’s zone should influence your behaviors when interacting with them. With your help, youth can learn to identify which zone they are in and develop effective coping strategies for each zone.

The Zones of Regulation are an easy and non-blaming way to talk about emotional dysregulation with youth. It can also help you manage your judgments about youth and neutralize young people’s judgments of themselves.

Consistently using the Zones of Regulation framework can create a better atmosphere for youth to learn about themselves, their emotional states, and how to solve any emotion-laden challenges they encounter.

As you might imagine, a young person does not consistently remain in one particular zone and they change all the time. 


Young people can shift from the BLUE Zone and GREEN Zone to the RED Zone slowly or sometimes very quickly. Moving from regulation to dysregulation often happens in a sequence of stages:

Stage 1-Anxiety/worry: In this stage, youth have something on their mind that is causing them stress. They may or may not be able to identify the stressor that is causing their discomfort.

Stage 2-Frustration: Given time and a lack of stress reduction, the young person’s level of frustration increases. Caution, your interactions with them at this stage may unintentionally add to the stress.

Stage 3-Anger: In this stage, their stress is becoming unmanageable and youth will begin to display non-compliance and/or verbal outbursts.

Stage 4-Secondary reaction: Youth feel and typically express anger toward the person who intervened at stages 2 and 3. At this stage they tend to refuse help, are shutting down, and are attacking others, things, or self. Their rational thinking is diminished, with limited capacity to change their own thinking, or to respond to purely rational interventions. They feel stuck, and indeed they are stuck.

Stage 5-Quieting: Eventually the young person’s agitation subsides. They become quiet and calmer. If the dysregulation was intense and lasted a long time they will often be tired and may even want to sleep.


At this juncture in your adult life, the intensity and frequency of your own dysregulation is not likely to be at the same level as some of the youth you work with. However, to improve your ability to empathize with them it can be helpful to think of a time when you were in the RED Zone and in stage 4-Secondary reaction yourself.


Reflection Exercise

Think about a time when you were very angry and you acted inappropriately.
How hard was it for you to think rationally about options in that moment?
Were you able to quickly get “unstuck” or did you need some time?

Would it have helped to have another person offering support to get you “unstuck” or would you have been frustrated and resistant?

Being aware of and honest about your own experiences will be helpful. You’ll have more patience and empathy when you find yourself dealing with a young person in a similar state. Keep this in mind when gauging how to intervene with youth when they are in the RED Zone.


There are effective strategies you can use at each stage. Consider these options:

Stage 1-Anxiety/worry: In this stage, use supportive approaches with youth such as engaging them in problem solving or finding solutions. Humor can be appropriate at this stage and is often effective and appreciated.

Stage 2-Frustration: In this stage, it is useful to show your genuine empathy with the young person’s frustration. This does not mean you automatically agree 100% with the youth’s perception of the situation, but that you do sincerely care about how frustrating the situation is to them. At this stage, it’ll be hard for them to generate those solutions on their own while feeling frustrated. You may need to prescribe some solutions and give youth choices about what to do next. 

Stage 3-Anger: In this stage, you will need to just take charge of the situation and let the young person know what needs to be done. Being directive involves giving a clear choice. Do not expect immediate change, rather allow the young person time and space to make a shift.

Stage 4-Secondary reaction: At this stage, you will need to be very clear, specific, and directive. This can involve telling the youth what will happen next. For example, telling the youth that they need to move to a safer area. Once the youth is in a safe place, quietly or silently observing them from a distance can be helpful, giving them time to recover.

In some instances, this will be the stage at which some sort of physical intervention might be necessary to protect the safety of the youth or others around them. It bears noting that there is debate in the field about the effectiveness of physical interventions.

DO NOT initiate a physical intervention unless you have received proper training. It can be dangerous and put you and the young person at physical risk and your organization at legal risk. Please note, this module is not intended to address the pros and cons of using physical interventions, nor is this module about any sort of physical intervention training.

This is an important topic that your agency can and should address through its policy manual and training. If you don’t know what your agency’s policy about physical interventions is, be sure to inquire immediately with your supervisor so you are prepared for such a situation.

Stage 5-Quieting: As the youth becomes emotionally regulated again, it can be helpful to give them a chance to reconnect. There are various ways to do this. For example, simply say to them, “You were in the RED Zone and now you’re back in the GREEN Zone. Take some time and let me know when you are ready to rejoin the group.”

A word of Caution: Sometimes a young person looks like they are in the quieting stage when they actually are not. An easy and reliable way to evaluate this is to ask the youth to do a simple task. For example, “I’d like you to throw that paper into the trash.” If they are not able to do so, then they are not in the GREEN Zone yet.

Helping youth navigate their experience of these different stages is an important part of youth work. It’s always helpful for you to think of problematic behaviors as an opportunity to intervene and make good use of a teachable moment.

Helping Youth Learn for The Next Time

It can be stressful for you when youth become highly dysregulated. However, like most things in youth work, it can turn into a learning opportunity and an important component of building a trusting relationship with them.

An escalated situation is something you and the young person share together. You both were emotionally charged in the moment. This is something you have in common and you can use that common ground to establish trust.

When the situation has resolved, and the young person is fully back in the GREEN Zone, reconnect with them and work together to unpack the experience and uncover helpful learning:

  • Help them identify what triggers or challenges led to the situation. Ask them if it’s okay for you to tell them when it appears they are moving out of the GREEN Zone because you want to help.
  • Work with them to identify coping options and resources for the future. Share your desire to help them avoid dysregulation and find ways you can work together on developing their self-regulation skills.
  • This may even be a time to practice some self-disclosure by sharing how you manage regulation. If it feels comfortable, let them know what works well for you.

For some youth, writing their ideas down and reviewing them occasionally can be useful to reinforce future coping options. Regardless of how you help them cope, it’s important you understand they may be resistant at first (that’s natural), but the more trust you can establish with them, the more they will open up to feedback about their coping strategies.

Whenever possible, intervene early, while the youth is in an earlier stage of dysregulation. Effective intervention becomes increasingly difficult as each stage progresses. Do what you can to prevent or interrupt the progression once you notice a youth move from the GREEN Zone.

So, recognizing their signs of anxiety, worry, and frustration is useful. But be on alert - anxiety and worry can sometimes be subtle. You have to be aware at all times and be present in the moment.

Reference Sources

1 Shonkoff, J.P. & Phillips, D.A. (2000) From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development, Washington, D.C., National Academy Press.

2Beauchaine, T.P. (2015) Future Directions in Emotion Dysregulation and Youth Psychopathology, Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 44:5, 875-896.

3 Kuypers, L.M. (2011) The Zones of Regulation: A Curriculum Developed to Foster Self-Regulation and Emotional Self- Control. Santa Clara, CA: Social Thinking Publishing.

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