How Does a Child Learn to Regulate?
Self-regulation is a popular buzz word in the child psychology world these days. And with good reason, as self-regulation is linked to social, emotional, and academic success. What is self-regulation, you ask? Self-regulation is the skill that allows anyone to manage difficult moments and make good decisions that are in line with long-term goals.
So, how does a child learn how to self-regulate? Is there a class? Is there a method? Is there a special way to impart this important skill? Well, not the a typical teacher-imparting-knowledge way. Here’s how it actually works: children learn to self-soothe through the experience of being soothed by their parents. In other words, self-regulation is absorbed through experiential learning. Parents have to soothe their children for children to one day soothe themselves.
Another way to think about this is to differentiate co-regulation, which is the experience of being soothed by another person, from self-regulation, which is the experience of soothing yourself. The relationship between co-regulation and self-regulation works like this: the larger the pool of co-regulation experiences a child has in his early years, the larger his toolbox of self-regulation skills will be later in life. To be better at co-regulation, we, as parents, need to work no our own self-regulation. It kind of works like this:
Let’s make this more practical. How can we all work on our own regulation abilities so that we set up our children for self-regulation success? Glad you asked. This is not an exhaustive list, but here are a few thoughts:
Accept that children need co-regulation, especially in moments of intense distress. Needing a parent’s help is not a sign that something is wrong with your child; it’s a sign that your child is operating as a perfectly normal human.
We are a relational species wired to connect to other people. And, parent-child interactions stimulate neural growth in a child’s brain, which means that co-regulation is helpful for a child! So when your child is dysregulated, you have your best opportunity to do some high-impact parenting. In each difficult moment, you can help your child develop healthy coping skills. Every moment that you are able to stay calm in front of your child will increase the likelihood that she will, years later, respond to her own dysregulation with calm and compassion.
Try to remember: “The best thing I can do for my child right now is help him with his meltdown. Helping now leads to independence and resilience later.”
Reflect instead of react. I love thinking about these two terms when I’m with my kids, as they present a powerful binary for my behavior. If my son starts whining, my reflection would sound like this, inside my head: “I am noticing that I’m really annoyed by his voice” while my reaction would sound like this: “I can’t deal with you right now!” I’ve said this to him before, and it doesn’t feel good after it comes out of my mouth. In fact, I think almost all of our “that didn’t feel good” parenting moments come because we reacted before we reflected.
Reflection allows us to insert a pause, and once we pause, we are able to think about how we want to handle a situation. During a pause, we usually don’t end up saying to ourselves, “yes, I am going to tell my 8-year-old that I can’t deal with him right now, that is definitely how I’d like to handle this situation.” When we pause and reflect, we are better able to act with intention, which feels good to us as adults. It is an example of how we have grown to learn to self-regulate ourselves, the very tool we want to hone in our children!
Reflection involves asking ourselves, “what is happening here?” and I’d encourage all of you to break this into two parts: first, “what is going on for me?” and then, once you’ve fleshed that out a bit, then “what is going on for my child?”
The more we learn to reflect as a response to distress, the better we are at making good decisions. Pausing is a key component of calming down, so if we pause in the face of our child’s distress, we are starting that co-regulation process.
It’s not what you say, but how you make your child feel. If I review some of my emotionally difficult life moments, I can picture the things that ended up making me, slowly, feel better (read here for more on why it’s healthy for us and our kids to slowly recover from difficult moments). I remember talking with my best friend after I got rejected from my top-choice clinical internship setting; I remember a phone call with my mom one day after a million things went wrong and then I lost my favorite umbrella in the pouring rain and everything felt impossible; I remember sitting with my husband while feeling very panicky about some big life decisions we had to make. Here’s what I don’t remember: A word of what any of them said. What sticks with me from those memories: feeling understood, feeling like they liked me, feeling like they were really “there” for me. Their presence is what made me feel a little bit better; it’s what helped me start to regulate.
One feeling more than any other helps begin the co-regulation process: the feeling of being understood. It’s as if someone is communicating to us, without using any words, “You’re ok, you’re not crazy, you can feel this way, I can stand it, I’m here with you.” Imagine that you’re all alone on a bench of uncomfortable feelings and then someone scoots over next you, not pressuring to get off the bench, not telling you switch to the happy-feelings bench, not explaining to you why you shouldn’t be on this bench in the first place. The person just sits. And allows. It’s almost indescribable how good that feels.
Try this at home:
Let’s go through each of the above points and pair it with an action item. This is a longer than normal action-plan-section because it’s so important and there are so many different ways to work on regulation skills. Pick one or two ideas from the list that resonate with you and start with those. Come back to this list at a later date and try another.
Accept that children need co-regulation, especially in moments of intense distress. Your child’s dysregulation does not say anything about her… or about you.
Remind yourself, “needing is normal!” I can remember this because its short and because anything with alliteration tends to stick in my brain.
Tell yourself: “Nothing is wrong with my child. Nothing is wrong with me.” Judgment makes our emotions spiral, while normalizing starts the process of regulation.
Reflect instead of react when emotions get big in your house.
There are a few concrete ways to do this:
Place a post-it on your fridge that says “Pause.” That’s all.
Review How to Take a Deep Breath. Find one time to practice it in front of your children. Choose a time when you’re actually relatively calm, when you don’t “need” that breath. See if you can find yourself saying “One moment, honey, I just need to take a deep breath,” to start modeling – to your child but also, really, to yourself – this first step to regulation. When we start practicing pausing in times when we are calm, we are more likely to be able to draw on this skill when things get more escalated.
Talk to your kids about your intention. Something like, “One of the things I’m working on is pausing instead of reacting when there are big feelings in this house. You might notice that I’m trying to take some deep breaths and slow down when things start to get out of control. Just wanted to let you know.” This communicates respect, sends a message to yourself about the importance of your goals, and models self-awareness and growth mindset for your child. Basically, you’re totally crushing it with this intervention.
Greet, with curiosity and kindness, your own difficult emotions in the moment. When we reflect with compassion about our distress, we take away some of it’s negative energy. These words might sound awkward or hokey to you if you’ve never done this before, but I promise you, one of the best things you can do for your parenting is develop a better relationship with different parts of yourself. This greeting might sound like “Hi anxiety” or “Hi urge to scream” or “Hi feeling that says I cannot take this anymore.” Then maybe add on, “I see you. We are going to get through this moment together. I’m here with you.” If these words sound to you like the ones I’d recommend using with your child in a moment of distress… you’re correct. Direct compassion and acceptance internally and you’ll start to see it flowing out of you, toward others, more naturally.
It’s not what you say, but how you make your child feel.
Sometimes there’s a really simple way of delivering good safe feelings: approach your child, crouch down and look him in the eye, and say: “I really love you so much. No matter what, I will love you that much,” and then give your child a long squeeze. Your child may look at you after and say, “Ok mom… geez!” but he will walk away with that “I’m safe” feeling. And that feeling is the essence of regulation.
Set a goal to apologize to your child one time each week. Go back to your child and say something like, “I’ve been thinking about what I said to you, and I’m sorry. Just like we talk about your feelings and learning how to manage them, I’m working on that too.” Apologies from parents are magic because beyond repairing the initial rupture, they tell your child that you spend time thinking about what transpires between the two of you. And what we pay attention to communicates our attachments and values; so in an apology, we are really telling our child, “You are important to me. You are worthy of my reflection. Even after difficult moments, I’ll come back to you.” Again, that feeling of safety. And safety allows for regulation.