In this first blogpost of a 4-part series on self-regulation, I’ll cover:
- how children learn to self-regulate (both bring their intense emotions down, and control their behaviour)
Do you struggle with your child’s intense emotions, or your own? Do you wonder if your child will ever learn to control his behaviour? We all want our children to eventually learn to calm their emotions and focus themselves when needed so that they can achieve their goals, and also build and maintain relationships. Traditionally we’ve taught our children to modify their behaviour by using incentives or punishments, but the research shows that both of these usually result in kids who only behave when others are looking. In addition, rewards and punishment always reduce intrinsic motivation. Lately, I’ve seen more teachers and parents using strategies to “self-regulate”, but my observation is that those aren’t always effective either.
Here’s the real scoop on how to help your child learn to self-regulate.
What is Regulation Anyways?
We tend to think of self-regulation as the ability to control one’s behaviour. This is true, but there’s another deeper level of regulation that needs to happen before we can control our behaviour. Focusing on behaviour alone ignores the fact that our autonomic nervous system responds automatically to triggers, causing a physiological response that is beyond our conscious control. Our ability to deliberately manage our behaviour is alwayscontingent on whether our nervous system is balanced, over-activated or under-activated. Underlying nervous system balance or regulationsets the foundation for behaviour change.
Children learn to self-regulate through first co-regulating with their primary caregiver or teacher whose nervous system is regulated.
That means—that if we aren’t regulated as the primary adult in charge of a child, they have no one to regulate with, and no one to learn from. This is true for both nervous system regulation and behaviour control.
Here’s what nervous system “regulation” or “dysregulation”could look like in you, the parent, when you have a child who is struggling, behaving inappropriately, or having an emotional outburst. If your nervous system is:
1) Balanced (or “regulated”) – You have some ability to consciously control your behavioural and emotional response to your child. You feel able to look into his eyes, consider his intention (e.g., what’s he trying to accomplish?), and consider the contextual factors (e.g., is he hungry or overtired?). You can often tune into his feelings, offer empathy and comfort, and he eventually calms and comes into a regulated state alongside of you.
2) Overactivated (“dysregulated”)– You’re in a state of high sympathetic nervous system (SNS) arousal due to feeling stressed or other factors, and the adrenalin and other stress hormones released as part of your SNS activation is causing you to be more likely to fight or flee. You’re likely to react to your child with emotional intensity (e.g., raise your voice, speak harshly, blame, shame or criticize).
3) Under-activated (“dysregulated”)– You may be unable to attune to your child’s emotional state, and therefore you can’t tell how he’s feeling. You may be frustrated and bewildered by his behaviour because your own ability to feel what your child is feeling is shut down at that moment. You just can’t figure out his motivation for behaving the way he does! Your nervous system may have temporarily gone into a state of dissociation or “freeze” (usually this is due to past, unresolved trauma), making it difficult to sense what’s going on with your child and attune to his needs (more on this in a future post). A common child response to this state is to pull away from you or resist very strongly.
When we can hold steady in the face of intense emotions or behaviour, we actually role model and create an environment in which our child can align with us. This is called co-regulation.
This is the reason that when you’re feeling out of control, it’s impossible to get your child to settle calmly. However, if you’re able to stay calm and allow him to express emotions so that the energy can move his body as needed, your child will eventually come into balance.
Why Is It Important?
When our children co-regulate with us, they’re not only changing their behaviour. Their nervous system actually becomes wired according to how we interact with them. Each time they co-regulate with us, they build stronger pathways in the part of their brain that helps them self-regulate independently in future. If you self-regulate easily—your child will learn this. If you don’t—they will struggle more. We all learn self-regulation from our parents, but if you have difficulty with this, don’t worry. It can be learned.
It’s important for us as parents to increase our capacity for self-regulating and co-regulating with our children, because if we continue to rely on using any type of rewards, incentives or coercion/threats to change our children’s behaviour, this affects how their brains become wired. Their behaviour will be more likely to be motivated by fear, and they’ll likely only “behave” while the reward lasts. These children may look like they’re self-regulating on the outside, but the research shows that rewards and punishments profoundly reduce intrinsic motivation and can also damage our relationship with the child (Kohn, 1993; Pink, 2009). It’s not self-regulation—it’s behaviour compliance.
Our best opportunity to teach our kids self-regulation (and connect with them) is to optimize our own ability to self-regulate.
Practices for Regulating Yourself
If your child is out of control, and you’re feeling out of control as well, try a few of these simple steps. (If your child is older, you can excuse yourself, letting him know you need a few moments alone to collect yourself. If your child is very young and you can’t leave him, try inviting him to “play these games” with you.)
2) Notice the feelingof the ground underneath your feet, and the chair under your bottom if you’re sitting.
3) Listen.What’s the very quietest sound you can hear?
4) Look around your environment, and name some of the items out loud. Focus on each for a few seconds, taking in the details of the object, and moving on when you feel finished. (With your small child, you could give it this a name that feels fun to both of you—“The Noticing Game”?)
5) Bring your attention to your sensation.Use your hands to very gently, as if touching something fragile, touch your face or your arms. Spend a few moments noticing how it feels—your cheeks, your nose, ears, neck, hands, fingers, etc.)—and noticing the sensations as you continue to move your hands slowlyas if you’re exploring and discovering these parts of your body for the first time.
“Orienting” to our bodies and to the sensory input from our environment, just as animals in the wild do by looking around when they feel threatened, physiologically calms the reptilian brain and helps bring us back into the present moment, where we can more calmly interact with our child. It’s the first step to regulating ourselves. When we are calm and centered ourselves, our children can co-regulate with us.
The next time you and your child have a situation that’s escalating, give these simple steps a try and let me know how it goes in the comments below. I’d love to hear your stories or questions.
Also, if you’ve found this helpful, please feel free to share the link with others who might benefit, or on social media.
In this post, I use nervous system “balance” and “regulation” interchangeably. Nervous system regulation is accomplished automatically in our bodies by our autonomic nervous system, which is comprised of the sympathetic nervous system and parasympathetic nervous system. I haven’t gone into the underlying science of what happens physically in our bodies when we’re regulated or dysregulated, but if you’re curious, please feel free to ask in the question section below at the end of the post.
Note that “regulation” and “dysregulation” are labels of temporary states. They aren’t flaws or something to be ashamed of or worried about. We all have moments of regulation and dysregulation, and depending on our past experience and skills, some people are able to bring themselves back into a state of feeling balanced more quickly than others. The point of this blogpost is to enable parents to raise conscious awareness so that parents can notice when they’re experiencing these states, and learn some skills for re-balancing—thereby supporting their children to balance as well.
In the next three blogposts, I’ll share:
- How regulation affects children’s ability to learn,
- Some more detailed practices for working specifically with your children to calm yourselves together during difficult times, and
- Parenting practices for how to repair and restore connection when feel regretful or ashamed because you’ve yelled or blamed instead of co-regulating.
Kohn, Alfie. Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise and Other Bribes. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company. 1993.
Levine, Peter A., Ph.D. In An Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness.Berkeley California: North Atlantic Books, 2010.
Pink, Daniel H. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. New York, NY: Riverhead Books, Penguin Group, Inc. 2009.
Porges, Stephen W., Ph.D. The Pocket Guide to The Polyvagal Theory: The Transformative Power of Feeling Safe. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2017.