How can you help your child to emotionally self-regulate?
It is normal for small children to have meltdowns or tantrums. Pre-teens and teens can also feel overwhelmed by the many changes and neurodevelopmental ‘leaps’ happening in their brains and bodies. Self-regulation is a way for them, and you, to find a balance. It is developed over time, and something that kids need to be taught and practice.
What do we mean by ‘self-regulation’?
There are several different types of self-regulation. For example, physical regulation is the ability to calm (down-regulate) or to motivate (up-regulate) our bodies and brains for the task at hand.
Sensory regulation refers to our capacity to regulate sensory stimuli, and maintain whatever alertness (again moving from a high alerted state or a low alertness state), to whatever is the most helpful for us in a situation.
Emotional self-regulation refers to our ability to face emotions, and our capacity to match our energy to the situation that we are facing.
Emotion regulation comes in to the picture when we are faced with big feelings, both positive and negative, and relates to our ability to respond in a healthy adaptive way rather than engage in our kneejerk reactions.
Self-regulation is the term we use to describe our overall ability to match our inner energy and outer behaviour to a situation. Again, it is a skill that children need to be taught and practice. Learning to regulate your emotions is a complex process, and it is important to remember that it continues throughout adulthood.
Tips from our Team
As psychologists, our first piece of advice is to not avoid hard situations. Parenting your child to a space where they can self-regulate, usually requires some modelling of how how you regulate and break down experiences into more manageable parts. It’s also important to nourish an attitude of gentleness and understanding, towards the inevitable times where we can’t fully regulate ourselves to the task at hand.
Our ability to self-regulate is influenced by lots of different factors. For example, our temperment plays a significant role. We are also impacted by whether or not we experience ‘big feelings’, neuro-difference and sensory sensitivities, as well as our own parenting and the particular potent triggers we might have in certain situations. Recognising these differences is important, as it will help you adjust your parenting to your childs’ unique needs. This understanding will also nurture compassion for whatever areas your child might continue to develop their regulation skills within.
So, for example – if your child is sensitive to sensory stimuli (lights, crowds, loud noises, smells, textures, clothing), they will benefit from phrases like the following:
You really don’t like the shopping centre, just like I don’t like traffic! So it might be tough to avoid feeling stressed when we are in these situations. But what we can do is think about what helps us when we do get stressed.
Does that sound like a good plan?
Think about how to catagorise regulation according to ‘high & low’, and ‘up & down’. What situations require higher energy, and where do we need to engage lower energy? And what situations does your child typically find themselves feeling like they are too high or too low when meeting them?
For example, your child might feel drained and display low energy after school. Doing their homework requires concentration and higher mental energy. It also requires lower or more regulated physical energy to sit at a desk. So in this instance, we want to lift their mental energy for the task, while helping them feel physically able to sit and complete it. One way to boost mental energy is through a drink of cold water or the fuel of a snack. Maybe a set brain break where they watch a preferred tv show for half an hour, while wrapped in a blanket (give them a five minute reminder of when this ends). Or some jumping jacks and fresh air to boost circulation and brain activity. Taking movement breaks can also help to both lift and lower energy levels during homework activities, and we can usually read when our child needs these.
This perspective of ‘higher or lower’ can help you ask the core question:
‘how can we match our energy to what we need to do, or how we want to act?
So how can I, as a Parent, teach my child self-regulation skills?
The first step to teaching regulation skills is to think about how you can share the helpful ways you do this in your own life. Use real world examples where you have had to calm your mind or body, and ways you found motivation when you needed it.
I felt really angry at work today when I had so much to do but couldn’t concentrate.
My body felt tense, I could not relax and I had so many thoughts that I couldnt focus.
I remember when I had an exam in school.
I was nervous and I wanted to do well.
My mind was racing, and I kept rereading the same paragraph.
Use these examples to clearly describe how feelings are experienced in the body. This educates your child, and can help them feel less alone in their experience.
The next step in modelling is to instruct them in how you processed these feelings and coped with them.
I knew that taking a walk cleared my head, and I wrote down what I needed to study before I took a break.
When I felt angry I took space in the garden. I talked to my mum about it and let myself have a big cry. I knew that wrapping up in a blanket and watching my favourite show helped me decompress.
Be honest about how difficult it can be – this normalises that self-regulation requires a lot of energy and isn’t a ‘perfect process’.
For more real-world examples, check out the range of therapeutic stories on our InsightKids App. These stories have been developed by our Psychology Team, from our experience of supporting families in clinic. Some of our most popular self-regulation stories include:
Tune up your mindfulness skills
Mindfulness refers to the art of noticing. Noticing what is going on in our body, and in the world around us. A regular practice has been shown to nurture our self-regulation skills as we draw our attention away from worry and stress, and learn how to regulate in the present moment.
Encourage your child to take slow deep breaths when they are overwhelmed. This can help them to calm their nervous system and reduce stress. Some animated breathing exercises from our InsightKids App include:
Cookie Breathing (3 mins)
Activities that can help your child develop their regulation through their mindfulness muscle include:
- Playing the game ‘I spy’. Noticing something in their environment draws their attention in, and asking them to describe it in detail can exercise ‘noticing’ as a self-regulation activity.
- Teach them self-massage. Paying attention to muscle groups and engaging sensory touch can help them calm their nervous system.
- Listen to soothing music. Again, this activity soothes body & mind and can help your child regulate their focus.
- Try a progressive muscle relaxation exercise together. This can be a playful way to draw their attention to their body and relax their nervous system.
Click here to try our range of Progressive Muscle Relaxation exercises on our InsightKids App.
Engage in Brain training
As a child, our brain develops from ‘bottom up’. This means that our basic functions like breathing, heart rate, sensory processing and sensing threat emerge first. Then as we move through childhood into our mid-20’s, our upstairs or ‘thinking brain’ grow into action. Explaining this ‘downstairs’ and ‘upstairs’ brain development to children, can help them understand why it can be tricky to problem-solve and self-regulate as their brains are still developing – see the work by Daniel Siegal outlined in the following infographic:
You can find some sensory brain training exercises on our InsightKids App:
Our calming sense of Hearing (5 mins)
Our calming sense of Taste (4 mins)
Our calming sense of Touch (6 mins)
Practice a path through meltdowns
Another way to teach selfregulation skills to your child is to develop your own skills in coregulation. This simply means learning how to coach them through big emotions, and finding what helps you regulate yourself during tantrums or meltdowns.
As a team we know just how difficult this can be. Be gentle with yourself. Start by bringing awareness to what triggers meltdowns. Create a list for both you and your child about what helps you upregulate or downregulate during these periods. And take some time to think about how to overcome some of the obstacles to repairing after these emotional ruptures.
Remember, you’re not starting from scratch here. Listen to what works for you, and draw on our advice podcasts from the ‘Managing Meltdowns’ Section on our Parent App to help you through:
My role as a Parent during a Meltdown (6 mins)
Keeping your child safe during a Meltdown (3 mins)
How to stay calm when your child is having a Meltdown (3 mins)
Some takeaway points from this advice blog:
- Regulation does not refer to feeling calm, but rather our ability to up-regulate or down-regulate our energy to the task or situation that we are facing.
- Emotional self-regulation continues through childhood into adulthood, and is something that needs to be taught and practiced.
- Find a language that fits with regulating ‘up & down’, and recognizing when we have ‘low or high’ energy.
- Model real-world examples and use therapeutic stories to help.
- Create a list of regulation activities for you both.
- Model being gentle with yourself and normalise that regulation is not a ‘perfect process’.
– April Offer –
Psychological Support for the whole family.