Last week I wrote a post about the many reasons why it can be hard for children to self-regulate. If you missed it, you can read it here. In a nutshell, being able to manage our thoughts and feelings so that we can stay calm and alert can be tricky. This is self-regulation and it’s a skill that we learn into early adulthood. In fact there are plenty of adults that struggle with this skill too. When kids are really struggling with self-regulation, as opposed to defiant behaviour, no amount of punishment or telling them to change is going to help. In fact, this is likely to make it worse. So I wanted to follow up on my last post this week, and focus on the response. What can we do to help our kids calm down when they’re struggling with their self-regulation?
I’m going to go through ten general principles. I’m focussing on the more emotional end of self-regulation, which I will refer to as hyper-arousal, as this can be the most difficult to manage. But before we dive in; a disclaimer. As I wrote last week, self-regulation is complicated. It involves lots of different factors. There can be many reasons why children will struggle to self-regulate, and some children are going to need specific strategies rather than a general approach. These principles are still great to use, but if you find your child is still struggling, you may want to seek professional help. We can offer this so please feel free to get in touch. Either way, I suggest starting with these principles. Remember, self-regulation starts with co-regulation. So these principles are not intended to be given to a child for them to do independently. All of these principles are designed so that child and parent can work together and it is likely that more direction will be needed from a parent to begin with.
When we are struggling to control our emotions there are physical processes happening within our body. At a basic level our body is interpreting the situation as a threat, and is reacting to it. The sympathetic arousal system is engaged and we are likely to be experiencing a deluge of physical sensations (difficulty breathing, rapid heartrate, sweating etc.) as well as emotions. In the brain our amygdala has taken over, and we cannot access the prefrontal cortex, which means we cannot think rationally. This is why reasoning with a child in this state is unlikely to be effective.
So wait. It is important to give a child in a hyper-aroused state time to calm down. There might be other strategies that can be used as part of this, but knowing that this cannot be rushed is a good place to start.
Children that are in a hyper-aroused state may be acting out verbally and physically. When our amygdala is in control we either fight, flight or freeze. In terms of evolution, this is an old part of our brain, which was very effective when we were faced with sabre tooth tigers as cavemen. Sometimes it can be less helpful now, in homes or in the community, with hazards, objects and other people to contend with.
So think about the space that your child occupies when they are upset. The key here is safety. First, physical safety. Are they in a place where there are hazards, or are there objects that need to be moved? Are other children out of the way if your child is likely to hit out? Next consider emotional safety. In a hyper-aroused state we do not feel safe. And feeling safe again will help a child to move out of that state. So what space will your child feel most safe in? Some children feel safe in smaller enclosed spaces like dens or in bed. Some children prefer a wide open space with room to move. What does the space look like? Cluttered and busy is usually less calming. Consider dimming bright lights and reducing distractions from screens or music.
Co-regulation starts with you, as a parent. The calmer you can be, the better. As humans we naturally mirror others that we are with, in terms of body posture, tone and emotional states. Furthermore as a parent you are role-modelling to your child, and by projecting calm you are showing them how to regulate.
Calm means being mindful of your own emotional state. Use your own strategies to look after your own mental health. Parenting children struggling to self-regulate can be very difficult, so use support and know your own limitations. Be kind, and remember you can always start again.
Calm means low tone and normal volume of voice, clear light speech, non-threatening body language and not reacting strongly. To help yourself project calm use basic breathing techniques in the moment and make yourself aware of your own body – notice your thoughts, speech, any tension. Here is an article from Healthline with some ideas to help keep calm.
As we’ve discussed, being in a hyper-alert state can be very frightening. Anxiety leads us to fight, flight or freeze, so anxiety can often look like anger. For a child that is misbehaving, the traditional response is often to leave them alone – think strategies like the ‘naughty step’ or ‘time out’. Whilst this might make sense for defiant behaviour, children that are struggling to self-regulate are more likely to need connection. They might want an adult close by, and may seek reassurance afterwards. This doesn’t necessarily mean physical touch. Some children will want this and others won’t. But staying close by will communicate to your child that you are in this with them; that they are not alone.
This is more of a strategy than a principle, but when it works it works well. Sometimes a child on the edge of hyper-arousal can be redirected. Some ways I have seen that works well for this are playfulness, logic and grounding.
Playfulness can work by diffusing a situation before hyperarousal kicks in. By being playful with your child you are essentially inviting them to connect with you socially. When children are in survival mode, the part of them that engages in social interaction is shut off. This is why timing is critical, and why playfulness will not always work. But when it does, if the child takes up the invitation, they are in a different brain space and so emotions are not as rigid and co-regulation is possible.
In a similar way, logic and grounding can redirect a child away from emotional outbursts, if timed right. A child may not be open to playfulness, but may respond to something more concrete. So use simple logical questions that you know the child will be able to answer quickly. What’s one plus four? Let’s count up in twos. How many Paw Patrol pups are there? For grounding, use the space you are in to redirect the child’s attention. Ask them to point to something green, orange blue. Ask them to find the letter A, B, C in the letters on the books that are visible. Ask them to point to a circle or square shape.
As I said, these strategies will only work when timed right, and a child may choose not to engage either way. But in some situations redirection can be very helpful.
This post is not a list of strategies, but there are plenty of strategies out there. The important thing to remember is that every child is different, and what will work for one child won’t work for another. Develop a toolkit for you and your child. Making things predictable when they feel scary can be helpful. So practice strategies that seem to help. Do them every time. Consider having a physical box where your child can grab things they need to relax or calm down. Create a routine around times of hyperarousal that promotes self-regulation, even if your child is not yet at the point of managing this themselves.
In order to develop your kit, you will need to work out what helps. The best way to do this is to be curious. Once your child has calmed down, talk about what happened. Discuss what helped, and what didn’t help. This is the time to praise any effort towards self-regulation that you saw, however small. This is also a good time for empathy. Listen to your child’s view and be curious about how it felt for your child in that moment. It is a good time for gently reiterating boundaries and explaining any context to the situation as needed. This might be relevant if the emotional outburst was in response to a family rule or if the child was being asked to do something. The idea is to increase the child’s understanding of what is expected of them, and to keep clear boundaries. This stage is not about invoking guilt. Remember, all these principles are designed for children who are struggling to stay in control of their own emotions. If they aren’t in control, then guilt is not going to help, and will instead be likely to lead them to give up. So instead aim for empathy and connection. If your child feels listened to, they will be more likely to be open to co-regulation strategies next time.
Up to this point I have focussed on how to help your child in the moment that they are hyper-aroused. The next three principles focus on the longer-term. As we’ve discussed, self-regulation is a skill that is developed over time, so here are some ways to promote this learning.
If your child is struggling to self-regulate on a regular basis, then look out for patterns. This could mean themes in terms of the time of day, people they are with, the amount of sleep they’ve had or types of foods or activities/situations that lead to emotional outbursts. It might be when they’re asked to do a certain thing or to make a change from their routine. Speak to your child’s school and find out what is happening there. Some children will be working so hard to contain emotion during the day that it comes out at home in the evenings. Be observant. If it helps, keep a diary. If you notice a pattern, be proactive and anticipate difficulties. If your child is struggling with transitions, give them more warning before things change. If your child is more likely to struggle after a busy day at school plan in some activities that they will find comforting.
An important component of us being able to self-regulate is recognising our own emotions, and the body sensations that go with these. If we cannot recognise our emotions then we won’t know when we need to change our behaviour or use a strategy in order to self-regulate. Connecting body sensations to emotions is a part of this, as our body sensations are often the first thing we notice. For example, if I can notice my body is tensed and my breathing is faster, I might realise that I’m feeling angry. As adults we often do this without paying too much attention, but it can be difficult for children.
You can therefore help your child by giving them a context for feelings. Talk about what feelings look like. When I feel scared this is what happens in my body. Share observations of feelings in TV programs or in other people, and wonder about what is happening in their body. Ask your child how they are feeling, and encourage them to recognise their own body sensations and to develop a language about emotions. By doing this you will also be giving your child the message that feelings are normal. This is really important as sometimes feeling big feelings can be scary. Knowing that feelings are normal will help to lessen this fear.
Praise cannot be underrated. Using strategies to calm down when we’re feeling out of control is very difficult. Emotions can be overpowering. This is hard work! Therefore, it’s super important to praise effort. Praise even the smallest effort your child makes. Through doing this, you will be giving them the message that they CAN do this, that they do have some control in this situation.
I hope these principles have given you some new ideas to try at home. Parenting is hard, and when kids are struggling to self-regulate it’s particularly difficult. Bear in mind that these principles are an ideal. As parents we do our best, and that is all we can do. You might be juggling other children’s needs, work, health issues or household commitments. You might parent very differently to your partner or you might be a single parent. Don’t feel guilty if you haven’t always managed to stay calm, or if you are more focussed on survival than keeping a diary for patterns. Use support from family and friends and just do what you can.