Self-Regulation is a Parenting Skill

Imagine this (and some of you won’t need to imagine it, this will have been just like your day!)….

It’s 5pm, and you haven’t started dinner yet. In fact, you don’t even know what you are going to have for dinner, because you just remembered to take the mince out of the freezer at 4pm! Your toddler is getting cranky and really should be in the bath, but your 6 year old needs your help with listening to him read his school reader. The cat is circling you waiting for it’s dinner. The phone rings and you have a headache. Now if that was your day, then you may well want to scream, to pass the kids over to hubby when he gets home, or to run away. Our impulse is to go away. The reality is that we can’t do that, and we know that somehow we will muddle our way through it. We’ll decide that the toddler needs bed more than a bath, that toast is dinner tonight, and that headache pills come before the cats miaowing. We know we will get through it, because we have succeeded before, and we’ve learnt some skills along the way – thank goodness!

We weren’t born knowing how to do that – how to regulate our emotions and systematically work through the tasks in a priority, skillful manner. It is a learnt skill.

Your young baby goes from happy to starving, in just a few minutes, and he cannot control his distress when the milk isn’t immediate – he will cry furiously.

Your two year old will have a major melt-down when you give her the sandwich on the green plate instead of the purple one. They can’t express their feelings to you, and so a tantrum with tears and raging ensues.

In both of these stories, the children have no impulse control… they are upset and respond immediately. And in both cases, it is the parent who helps the child to calm down, with their words and actions.

Impulse control is something which can be taught and which parents model to their children (or not!)

From an early age we can start teaching the concept of a short ‘wait’ time eg “I’ll get the blocks for you when I’ve washed my hands” or “We’ll go to Grandma’s after I’ve changed your nappy”. You are introducing children to the idea of a short delay, as opposed to instant gratification.

You can also help children to learn, by not rescuing them when things go wrong eg they are building a tower of blocks and you can see that it will fall over. Many parents won’t allow the child to experience the ‘pain’ of it falling and instead will fix it for them. How will your child learn about stacking blocks if they ‘never’ fall, and secondly how will they learn to handle their frustration with it falling if you deny them the opportunity to experience it? It’s okay to give children the message that Mummy and Daddy are here to help you if you need it, but encourage them to try first by themselves. If they have a melt down when the blocks do fall over, talk with them: ‘What do you think you can do this time?’ This encourages them to use their brain to develop a possible solution and to recognise that ‘flipping your lid’ doesn’t solve the problem… finding a solution does!

Remember though that at times you ‘flip your lid’ eg you are driving in the car, surrounded by slow traffic, and you complain loudly, or yell at another driver. If you have difficulty controlling your impulse to yell, (and I’m guessing here that you are 20-30-ish!), then why would we expect that a 2y.o or a 4 y.o can manage their emotions! Be realistic. Be calm. Be firm and nurturing. Teach them through your modelling the behaviour and through learning to wait sometimes, and that ‘losing it’ doesn’t get you want you want… Life’s not like that.

There’s a great video clip showing how the brain responds to high emotions, by Dr Dan Siegel

It’s a useful clip for you to understand, and you can share it with children at around 5 -6 yr.o. to help them understand about their brain and emotions – it’s called self-regulation.

Happy Parenting!

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