“Would you just look at yourself! What has got into you? Get off the floor and keep moving!”
During my December travels last month, I got to share in the wonderful experience that is waiting in the security line at DXB airport. There was an exhausted mother and child in front of me and it was around 2am in the morning. We were all frustrated with waiting, unpacking every possible electronic and taking shoes, jumpers and every-freaking-thing else off too. This up-until-now relatively calm child had reached his limit. He went from holding his poop together to throwing his poop around like glitter confetti. He crumbled to the floor, screamed and cried and had to be dragged through the beeping machine that might detect god-forbid, a smart watch that he should have removed. We can all feel exactly like this kid in that moment. We can all feel tired, frustrated, impatient and irritable at times. But what makes us learn to hold it all together?
Self-regulation is our ability to control our thoughts, feelings and behaviors. It's how we get out of bed in the morning. And how you can stand at your daughter’s bed for 15 minutes trying to get her out of it, without losing your cool. It's how we deal with the things that stress us out. Like not getting enough sleep, too many daily responsibilities and other important (and sometimes not so important, ahem!) distractions in the day. You can see why this can feel challenging for adults. And how it can feel downright impossible for your child.
Self-regulation is both behavioral and emotional. To self-regulate and behave somewhat “normal” in any given situation, our behaviors and emotions need to be kept in check. For your child, being in control of their actions when needing to share their stuff and not act out can be really hard. It’s emotional too. Children are always learning how to respond to the world around them. It's a tricky balance between "this feels like the end of the world" and "I know I won’t have to feel like this forever." …unless you have a teenager. If you have a teenager, it will feel like this for a forever. Sorry. It isn’t. But it will FEEL like it is.
How do children learn self-regulation?
Children can learn self-regulation through language. A child with less of an ability to share their thoughts and feelings is going to have more of a struggle to “look at themselves”. Behavior regulation is about providing a space for your child to make choices. To know their boundaries. To know where they end, and where the next person begins. To feel safe because these boundaries exist. To have an outlet for their overwhelm. And to still have a way to communicate to others about their struggles at the end of it all.
We can’t expect children to reach certain milestones in self-regulation at certain ages. It just doesn’t work that way. Heck, your Dubai-born child is likely bilingual and speaks to you in a language that you might not even understand! Expecting your child to use one of their languages to talk about their anger because “at 8 years old you should be able to” would just be unfair.
Here is 4 ways to encourage self-regulation in your child no matter what their age:
We love routines! A structured and predictable routine is like a hug for your child's brain and mind every single day. It's clear, it's expected and it's manageable. And if you have an older kid in the home, this helps reduce decision fatigue too. You both know what is expected and you both know that getting out the door relies on sticking to that routine.
During play dates your child is learning how to take turns, "play nicely", negotiate, wait their turn, and figure out arguments too. The more this happens, the more you build their ability to navigate the big wide world. Getting your child involved in after school activities can help them be exposed to more of these opportunities.
Self-regulate "out loud." If you can't find the car keys in the morning, try this: "I can't find the keys and we're going to be late. Okay, deep breath. If I stay calm, I will be better at looking for my keys. I need some help though, so if you can help me look for the keys, I would really love that. Can you please help me?" That simple conversation teaches your child so much about how to stay calm. You are their best role model!
Physical Exercise and Play
If your boys love to wrestle, try not to discourage them because of what happens to the furniture in the process. Ask them to wrestle outside or find a safe place for them to do it. Having an outlet to use up that energy is important. And so necessary. If you remove all the safe outlets for that energy to be used up, then expect your child to find unsafe outlets instead... not exactly ideal. Get outside. Schedule an extra tennis or swim lesson. Make exercise a family value and priority.
What causes your child to not self-regulate?
A language delay (oftentimes this is expected if your child is learning more than one language at the same time) can affect regulation in some kids. If your child struggles with anger and anxiety, then a freeze, flight or fight response could also cover up your child's ability to self-regulate. It's not that they can't regulate how they are feeling or what they are doing, but rather their fear response is masking it. A fear response is a survival instinct that shuts down your child's ability to think clearly. They may seem inconsolable or like nothing you do is helping them calm down. This is less about self-regulation and more about the body's powerful ability to take over the mind because of the survival instinct. If you have noticed your child’s anger or anxiety getting in their way regularly, it might be time to speak to a helping professional.
If your child has not seen you regulate yourself that often, they may struggle too. All is not lost! There is still time to show them how it's done. Be brave and try to manage your feelings or behaviors “out loud” in one chosen situation. Such as in the car if you struggle with road rage. Instead of shouting at the other driver that can’t hear you, try saying out loud: “I really want to shout at him because he cut me off! But I’m just going to take a minute and breathe because I can see the school building from here and I know we’re nearly there.” Easier said than done, and still doable if you try just one place.
Self-regulation and self-control can help your child in many ways. It helps grow their self-awareness and emotional intelligence. It boosts self-esteem and motivation to try something new, fail a couple times and only then succeed. So much of life is about learning how to sit with failing so that we can eventually reach the success we’re after. The only way to do this then, is to be able to "breathe though" the hard. The sooner our kids learn how to do this themselves (instead of us taking away the "hard" for them) the sooner they learn the skill of balancing their thoughts, feelings and emotions. And the sooner you “get off the floor” and “keep moving” too!
Carla (https://urbancircle.ae/collections/warrior-brain/products/family-support-specialist-carla-buck) is a family support specialist, and occasional writer having written for HuffPost, Business Insider and others US and UAE based publications. She has experience working with children and their parents all over the world, having lived, worked and volunteered in Africa, America, Europe and the Middle East. Carla created Warrior Brain <www.warriorbrain.com> with the help of many cups of coffee, and aspires to help other parents confidently raise secure and calm children.