Self-regulation is the ability to recognize, manage and modulate one’s own emotions, emotional reactions and behaviors. These skills may be the most important tools that your child learns, with many recent studies determining that a child’s emotional intelligence, or “EQ”, is more important than their “IQ” for future success and happiness. Brain science has revealed that self-regulation skills can be learned at any age. As parents, we are our children’s most important self-regulation teachers.
Brain science explains what happens to us when we feel as though we have “lost it” and are overtaken by a big emotion. The amygdala, the brain’s security guard, signals a threat and floods the brain and body with adrenaline. The higher-level thinking and reasoning part of our brains, our prefrontal cortex, goes offline. Daniel Siegel calls this “flipping your lid”. Our neural activity is re-focused on the brain stem, which oversees survival and send us into fight or flight mode. At this point we can do a 100-yard dash in record time, but we can’t access reason or logic; we can’t plan or empathize, and we find it difficult to make good decisions. Both children AND adult brains work in this way when confronted with stress and big emotions.
We need to pause when this happens and focus on ways to regain our calm and the reconnection to our higher-level thinking. When parents regain our calm, we also encourage our children to do the same. Here are ideas that will boost your child’s abilities to self-regulate:
Help your children learn to name emotions. When reading books or watching shows together, engage in conversation that encourages your child to guess what emotions the characters are feeling. Practice guessing what your child is feeling, whether it is happiness or a more difficult emotion. “It seems that you are feeling really excited that we are going to the park today” or “I am guessing that you are nervous about going to the doctor today, is that true?” It doesn’t matter if your guess is wrong…any guess inspires your child to look inward, to see what they ARE feeling. There are many good books that help children learn to name and manage emotions. Check out the curated list of books for teachers, parents and children on our website.
Put together a calming basket or kit: When your child is calm, have a conversation about “flipping their lid.” Ask what that feels like for them and share what it feels like for you, as well. In a special container, have your child put items they feel will help them to calm down. It may include a special blanket, favorite books, a stuffed animal, or a glitter ball. Some children need to “get out” their adrenaline and will benefit from higher action options like a dyna-band or a wiggle cushion. We have some examples on our website.
Teach your child mindfulness and self-regulation. Rainbow breathing, square breathing, muscle squeezing, wall pushing… all are effective mindfulness activities that calm the central nervous system. Practice together when your child is calm and when they are beginning to feel strong emotion. Model mindfulness activities when YOU begin to feel strong emotion, too. Check out our self-regulation card pack for 60 quick activity ideas.
When a child “flips their lid”, let go of your agenda. No matter what you thought you were going to be doing next in that moment, when they have “flipped,” your child can’t access their thinking brain nor make choices. Your child is doing the best they can in the moment and as they practice self- regulation will begin to more effectively manage strong feelings without losing control. Recognizing that what you planned to get done with your child can’t happen until they are calm helps us to seize the moment to practice self-regulation strategies, instead.
Allow children to exercise their “disappointment muscles”. Kids need to learn how to manage disappointment. If they can learn that things will not always go their way, they cannot always win, sometimes they will be unhappy AND that they can make it through the resulting emotional storm, they will develop important skills. Allowing your kids to be disappointed (or angry), naming and validating feelings, empathizing and helping them to use strategies to manage their reactions builds emotional resilience. Our job is not to try to always make our kids happy; but instead to help them to have the tools to recover when they are not.
Notice, acknowledge and get curious. After your child has had a melt down and has managed to self- regulate, recognize their ability to get calm. You might say, “Wow. You were disappointed and then you were able to soothe yourself until you were calm. What did you do that helped you that time?”