For centuries, parents were taught that effective child-rearing consists of rewarding good behaviour while punishing bad behaviour. Parents assumed that this would teach their children self-control, and having excellent self-control would allow them to resist temptation and act appropriately.
Today, we know human behaviour isn’t that black and white. Kids usually act out not because they want to misbehave or even necessarily get their own way, but because they don’t know how to regulate their emotions. When they’re stressed out, they act impulsively, often engaging in behaviours that seem annoying or destructive to adult eyes.
Punishing kids when they’re upset doesn’t teach them the coping skills they need to avoid acting out in the future. At best, it encourages them to repress their feelings, and at worst, it makes them feel weak and ashamed. What children really need in this situation is our help: They need to be shown how to recognize and regulate the stressful emotions that drive them to misbehave. By helping our kids develop excellent self-regulation skills early on in life, we can both create a more harmonious household and set them up for lifelong success.
5 Ways to Help Your Child Self-Regulate
Self-regulation is, in a nutshell, the ability to recognize when we’re getting overwhelmed, identify what’s causing us stress, create a space in which to calm down, and figure out how to recover. This process is easier for some people than others; learning disabilities, mental disorders, and even natural differences in the limbic system (the part of the brain that controls emotion) can make self-regulation an uphill task for some kids. These children are often erroneously labelled “bad kids,” when in reality, they’re as shocked by their actions as everyone else—and desperately want to do better. The good news is that any child can learn how to manage his/ her emotions; some just require more practice than others. In addition to providing your child with love, warmth, and acceptance (even when she misbehaves), the five parenting strategies below are a great way to help your child learn the basics of self-regulation:
1. Learn how to recognize the signs that your child is getting overwhelmed.
Young children have a difficult time putting their feelings into words. As such, they tend to express their emotions through their behaviour. Some children will complain of phantom pains or ailments, for example, when they’re actually anxious. Others fidget nonstop when they’re starting to get upset. Rather than writing these behaviours off as quirks, try to understand what they mean. Not only will you learn to anticipate your child’s outbursts, you’ll be able to put his actions into proper context. You’ll know they’re the product of stress and upset, not a willful desire to be naughty. Better still, if you ask your child how he’s feeling at such moments, you’ll encourage him to start connecting his feelings to his behaviour. The more often he does this, the better he’ll get at independently recognizing when he’s stressed out.
2. Identify what’s causing your child’s stress.
We can’t protect our children from all sources of stress. Problems with peer relationships and academic challenges are inevitably going to occur in your child’s life, and you can only support her during such trials. Sometimes, however, our kids are stressed out by environmental factors (like too much exposure to noise, light, or scents, or too little “alone time”). Identifying these modifiable sources of stress is the first step towards creating a calming space for your child, one where she can effectively decompress.
Look for patterns in your child’s behaviour: Does she always break down at a certain time of the day, or in specific situations, such as when she’s surrounded by people? These patterns can reveal important clues about what’s really bothering your child.
3. Make lifestyle changes where possible to limit your child’s stress.
Once you know what’s causing your child’s outbursts, you’ll probably discover that there’s a simple way to circumvent most of them. If you notice that your child acts out most frequently in the hour before dinner, for example, you might consider moving dinner to an earlier time or providing him with an afternoon snack. If your child is triggered by noise, turning down the volume on the TV or radio might help him stay calm.
4. Help your child find coping skills that work for him.
Finding calming strategies has to be a collaborative process. While mindfulness exercises work well for many children, not every child will adapt well to practicing deep breathing or positive visualization. Some kids need a more active way of letting off steam, like running around for a few minutes or punching a pillow. (Their brains are so hyper-alert and their bodies are so full of energy that trying to sit still is just more agitating.) Other kids benefit the most from a bit of one-on-one time with mom or dad, doing something pleasant and distracting like playing a game or watching a movie. Above all else, your child’s calming strategy has to be something that he enjoys, or it won’t help him.
When you see that your child is getting overwhelmed, ask him what he thinks would help him feel better. If he’s not sure, experiment with different approaches until you find one that works. Experimenting in this way will help you get to know your child better and help him get to know himself. Once your child understands what soothes him, he’ll be able to call on his coping skills whenever and wherever he needs them.
5. Practice compassionate curiosity.
Many parents mistake “quiet” for “calm.” However, it’s important not to assume that just because your child is occupied with a diversion—like a video game—he’s not stressed out. He might be masking his feelings or distracting himself from them, and if that’s the case, they’re bound to surface later in less than healthy ways.
Take the time to “check in” with your child each day, asking him how he feels, how his day went, etc. Not only will this send the message that you care, it will encourage your child to proactively recognize and deal with repressed stress. Gradually, he’ll adopt the practice of regularly looking inwards and do so even when you’re not around.
No one, whether they’re a child or an adult, can completely avoid having outbursts. Still, by learning how to manage our emotions, we can minimize the impact of our actions and get back on track more quickly. Over time, this translates into increased confidence, resilience, and persistence—qualities that our kids need to cope effectively with life’s challenges. By teaching your child better self-regulation skills today, you’ll set up him for consistent success and happiness in the future.