Self-regulation is comprised of a variety of abilities that allow someone to understand delayed gratification, focus and shift their attention between tasks, and control one’s emotions and behaviors. Self-regulation allows a child to resist impulsive behaviors and outbursts, cheer themselves up when feeling down, and respond appropriately to different scenarios, consequently allowing them better control over their behavior and their life. Developing this skill takes time and practice, and as you can probably guess, directly impacts social interactions and success at school and work.
In the world of international adoption, many children spend the early years of their lives without the consistent one-on-one support and mentoring that is so important to the development of complex reasoning and thinking… directly affecting their ability to self-regulate. However, it is never too late to teach a child self-regulation strategies. These abilities are practiced and developed through continuous social interactions across one’s lifespan. This is great news for all parents, as this means that self-regulation can be taught and practiced through formal and informal interactions and environments at any age.
So what can you do to help your child develop these important life skills?
First things first. Teach your child about different emotions and how to identify and label them. This might entail pictures of different faces, voicing your feelings out loud as they come up, and helping your child to verbally label theirs. Facilitate discussions with your child about these emotions, for example, “Did you throw that toy because you were frustrated?” and help them formulate appropriate responses, “What else could you do if you’re feeling frustrated?” This provides a gateway to brainstorming appropriate ways to react in future scenarios. Try asking pointed questions to allow your child to arrive at an appropriate response, such as, “Could you ask for help?” or “What if you tried to play with this toy instead?”
Strategy Tool Box. When self-regulating, it’s important for children to have a “tool box” with different strategies for calming themselves down. These strategies take time to test out and practice, as different strategies will work for different children, but here are a few calm-down techniques to teach to your child:
- Take a mental/physical break: walk away from the situation, find a quiet place to sit and breathe, read a book, listen to music, walk a lap around the room
- Take a spiritual break: pray, use deep breathing exercises, practice a yoga pose
- Engage in a sensory experience: draw, cuddle under a weighted blanket, play with playdough
- Engage in positive self-talk: repeat a short, affirming phrase or mantra
- Seek social support: talk to an adult or friend, ask for help
Self Talk. A major contributor to good self-regulation is a child’s use of self-talk. Through self-talk, children repeat various lessons and sayings from adults to themselves when making decisions and reacting to different situations. To support your child’s use of self-talk, break down different scenarios to them, talking them through how you analyze and think about a situation, and provide them with short and simple rules and coping skills that they can repeat to themselves when needed, such as, “When I get mad, take a deep breath” or “I can have dessert after my homework is done”.
Simple Play. Children learn many life lessons through simple play. Even older children and adolescents benefit from one-on-one play with an adult. This is a great time to model appropriate interactions and reactions with your child, and to exhibit different coping skills. For example, during pretend-play, your child might pretend that a doll or loved one passes away. This is an excellent time to verbally walk through appropriate processing and response to grief with a statement such as, “Oh no, I’m so sad that my puppy died, I’m really going to miss him, I think I need a hug”. With older children, similar lessons can be learned through more age-appropriate scenarios, such as playing and losing at a game or role-playing different scenarios, “Oh man, I really thought I was going to win! But that’s okay, I can’t win every time. Hopefully I win next time!” and “How could you respond if you try really hard at a game but lose?”
Model. Children learn from what they see and experience. Make sure to regulate your own emotions when disciplining and interacting with your child. It is okay to vocalize “I’m really upset right now, I need to walk away and count to ten to calm down before we talk”. Do your best to stay calm and maintain a firm and even tone when disciplining or redirecting a child. This helps with modeling, as well as maintaining a safe and positive environment that your child feels comfortable making mistakes and learning in.
Adjust Expectations. When disciplining and speaking to your child, it is always important to respect and listen to them. Pay close attention to their attempts at communicating and validate their emotions and concerns, regardless of how they express them. It can be easy to forget the developmental level that your child is thinking and reacting at, but adjust your expectations as necessary to meet their current level, rather than the level you want them to be functioning at.
Clear Limits and Expectations. Children need regular reminders of rules and expectations and benefit from immediate, specific, and direct responses when their behaviors are out of line. Rather than only focusing on what your child should not do, follow-up with redirecting the child to appropriate activities that meet their needs and offer simple choices for them to choose from. This teaches your child what acceptable options they have and gives them some control over their life. For example, “We don’t scream in the house because it hurts our ears, but if you want to use your voice we can sing a song, or you can play and scream outside”.
Shower with Praise. Keep in mind that learning these important skills is a challenging task and takes years to develop and fine-tune. It is easy for children and adolescents to grow weary, so be sure to shower your child in praise and celebration as they successfully navigate tasks and situations appropriately. Offer mental breaks and opportunities for your child to choose the activity when you see them getting frustrated or tired, alternating challenging tasks with fun activities.
Importance of Environment. The environment can have huge impacts on a child’s behavior and development. Many emotional outbursts stem from your child feeling a lack of control but there are many things you can do to avoid this:
Investigate triggers and make accommodations. If your child has more difficulty regulating their emotions and behaviors in certain environments, cue into what could be causing this and make environmental accommodations.
- Is there a TV or radio in the background that is distracting or overwhelming your child? Turn it off or find a quiet place for your child to go to.
- Are bright lights or UV lights over-stimulating? Many children with sensory processing disorders and sensory sensitivities react negatively to artificial lighting and benefit from natural lighting provided by windows or soft-white lightbulbs.
- Does your child have a harder time regulating their behaviors when exposed to loud noises or busy hustle and bustle? Consider noise-cancelling headphones, or a weighted blanket or object to ground and comfort them when exposed to these stressful triggers.
Provide a structured and predictable schedule and routine. Walk your child through this routine often and give them warnings ahead of time to remind them of what comes next, “After we eat breakfast, we need to brush our teeth then go to school” and “After this TV show is over it’s time to work on your homework”. For some children, it’s best to have a printed or picture schedule that they can refer to throughout the day or week.
Helping your child learn to self-regulate will ultimately benefit you, your child, and their overall well-being, happiness and success throughout their life. Remember that the more your child practices regulating themselves, the easier it is for them to interact appropriately in various scenarios. To ensure their ultimate success, offer numerous opportunities for your child to think through and talk about their emotions and interactions, and provide boundless, loving support. With time and patience, you can pave the way for your child’s future successes.
For further information on self-regulation and parenting tips, check out the following resources: