By Kathleen Hill, LCPC, School Counselor
You are waiting in the perpetually confusing carpool line to pick up your children at the end of a stressful workday. Actually, your workday isn’t even over, and you know you now have to juggle a Zoom meeting while tending to your busy-bodied children. You notice your heart beating a bit faster, a dull headache forming, and your irritation rising. But, because you are an adult who has experienced many stressful thoughts, you know exactly what you need to do: take a deep breath, turn up your favorite podcast, and sip your water while you wait. Before your kids hop in the car, you have taken your stress level from an 8 to a 2. You just successfully used self-regulation to manage the many overwhelming thoughts that flooded your mind.
What is self-regulation? Self-regulation is the ability to monitor and manage your thoughts, feelings, and actions in acceptable and safe ways. In simple terms, it is your ability to think before you act, pause before you snap, and express your big feelings in a safe manner.
While in the situation above, you were able to self-regulate rather quickly, that is not always the case. Sometimes our feelings are too big; we are too overwhelmed, too busy, too tired, too hungry, and we cannot manage how we think or act. If we as adults have moments where we struggle to regulate, imagine how challenging this skill can be for our children. While some aspects of self-regulation come naturally as we mature, a large part of this skill is practiced and learned.
So, how do we help our children build this invaluable skill?
- The most important part is to not avoid challenging situations. If we constantly shield our children from stressors, their ability to react to hard times will be nonexistent. It is hard to see our children struggle, but we, as caregivers, can help navigate and scaffold through challenges. For example, if your child has a strong aversion to being left with a sitter for a date night, find ways to build their distress tolerance and self-regulation skills. This can be done by reading books about babysitters, sharing a story from your childhood about your favorite babysitter, allowing time for your child to spend with the sitter while you are in the other room before the big night out, and talking about ways they can comfort themselves when the big night finally comes! Don’t continue to neglect date night because your child cries when you leave. That won’t result in long-term growth for anyone!
- Find regulation skills that work for your child. For some, this may be physical movement like yoga poses, a walk with the family dog, or running up the stairs three times. For others, it may be more inward—quiet things like coloring, reading a book, lying under their favorite blanket, and listening to an audiobook. For many, somatic experiences are extremely beneficial in regulation, things like drinking ice water, taking a hot bath, having a healthy snack, and taking deep belly breaths.
- Ensure that your child’s physical needs are met. It will be extremely challenging to regulate when tired, hungry, or on sensory overload. If your child falls into one (or all 3!) of these categories, give them some grace and meet their needs before expecting them to manage their emotions.
- Find naturally occurring moments to reinforce self-regulation. Waiting in a longer than expected line at Trader Joe’s, when their favorite snack runs out, or when their baby brother is taking longer than they would like before sharing a toy. These are all teachable moments—use them! Help your child see what makes them tick and how to manage their reactions to being uncomfortable.
- Practice! Find self-regulation skills that work for your child and practice them when both you and your child are in a calm state so that they can pull them out of their back pocket when needed.
Our brains are not born knowing how to regulate. As mentioned, it is a learned skill and takes practice. One of the more impressionable things we do to build this skill is the act of co-regulating. When our children are babies, we attune to them when they begin to cry. When they are toddlers, we laugh with them when they are giggling. When they are older, though, it can be more challenging.
When your child is struggling with how to convey their frustration with a peer calmly, what can you do to help them regulate?
First, take a deep breath yourself and assess the situation to see what, if anything, your child needs from you. Then notice your affect—ensure your face is calm and your voice is of a moderate level and gentle tone. Then offer feedback: “You look pretty mad at Ben; let’s pause quickly.” Offering yourself as a guide in tone, affect, pacing, and actions is crucial for children to understand how to regulate.
Finally, it is so important to give yourself and your child some grace. Regulation will never be perfect. We all have moments that, upon reflection, we recognize where we could have done things differently. When regulation feels impossible or like your child struggles more than others, don’t panic—regulation takes practice, brain growth, and patience. However, if you feel like your child’s struggles with self-regulation are becoming a daily hindrance, please reach out to the NNM Wellness team to find a way to support your child.