Wellbeing Self Regulation

If you have ever lived with a child human being then you have experienced a moment like this: My number four child has weet-bix for breakfast every day. She is also obsessed with eating whatever someone else has, particularly mum’s food. So, during breakfast, when all four children are sitting down eating their variety of breakfasts,

 I was proud to see number four satisfied to eat her Weet-bix. As I enjoyed this fleeting moment of bliss, my wife sat down at the table with her vegemite toast and orange juice. To say that number four now wanted mum’s toast was an understatement. Within 5 seconds, her remaining weet-bix were on the floor, her water was on a trajectory towards her brother and amid the screams she was attempting to flip our solid timbre 8-seater table.

I feel safe to say that every parent has experienced something like this at some stage, if not daily. Reading this, you may be imagining how old my number four child is. The age that you guess, would determine how appropriate you feel this behaviour is. She is eighteen months old. So, this behaviour is appropriate. If you were imagining a five-year-old, then it would not be appropriate. If you are imagining an eight- or ten-year-old, then this is a real issue with self-regulation.

Self-regulation has been described as the most important lesson that you can teach a child. It gives them emotional freedom to navigate problems, social skills to build and maintain secure relationships, a calm frame of mind to subdue conflict and the mental fortitude to endue hardship. It’s not often that we notice someone’s ability to self-regulate. This is because we are too busy noticing all the other great characteristics that self-regulation makes way for.

Self-regulation is a skill that is learnt. A child may inherit a temperament, a personality or emotional quota. But the ability to regulate these temperaments, personalities and emotional quotas needs to be learnt. In other words, it needs to be taught to a child. At First Steps, self-regulation is a huge focus, we endeavour to instil in children knowledge, skills to fill their needs and qualities of character that will sustain them through life and enable them to cope, connect and contribute in a rapidly changing world.

So, how do we teach children self-regulation and how can do these things at home?

Before we start taking steps forward in teaching a child how to self-regulate, we need to take a step back and ask a few questions. We need to find out what is causing them to loss control. When my number four child lost control it was easy to observe and reflect on what caused her to loss control; she wanted mum’s toast. Sometimes it’s obvious to see what is causing the dysregulation. Other times children can loss the plot and we can be left completely in the dark, with no idea what just happened. This is when we need to start asking some questions about what is causing the child’s dysregulation.

  1. What is happening just before they lose the plot?
  2. What affect are adult interactions having on them?
  3. What affect are peer interactions having on them?
  4. What affect does the environment have on them?

When you come to realise what your child’s triggers may be, it is natural to want to remove or avoid those triggers. Sometimes, removal is the only answer. But if you have the time and awareness then you can coach your child through the situation. Coaching can be as simple as talking calmly to your child about the emotions that you are recognising. Talking Calmly about ways that they can navigate the situation. Talking Calmly about the reasons and contexts for the situation. Talking calmly about how they can endure the wait or be satisfied with what they already have. Take note, when we have these conversations, the only person who needs to be calm is we, the adults. And trust me, I understand that it’s difficult to regulate ourselves when our children are losing the plot. That leads me to the next point.

It’s so important to reflect on our own skills to self-regulate. Emotion is contagious! More often than we would like to admit, we lose the plot when our children lose the plot. Modelling how to stay calm and regulate our emotions and actions is the greatest way to teach children how to self-regulate. The emotions that you display are contagious. I say display because you probably don’t feel calm, but that’s what you want your children to see. Generally, parents who self-regulate well have a much easier time teaching their children how to self-regulate.

Our actions and expectations can also end up being the trigger that is sending our children over the edge. You may find that something you regularly say or something you often do or a look you don’t even realise that you’re giving, may be the trigger. If it’s true and you are self-aware enough to figure this out, then the path forward comes down to your ability to self-regulate, and luckily self-awareness is the first step.

At First Steps, we often reflect on how the environment is affecting the children. External factors like noise, brightness, smells, allergens, nutrition, sleep hygiene, routines and so many other things can cause children anxiety, stress and frustration which eventually lead to them losing the plot. Closely observing children and reflecting on the many external influences will help you to get an understanding of why certain behaviours are happening.

You can easily do this at home. When emotions run high then reflect on what was happening at the time. After a while, you may start to see some patterns emerge. Maybe it’s every time they eat a certain type of food or whenever the news is on too loud or when a routine changes. This knowledge will help you talk through the situation and give your child strategies to avoid the situation or cope with the change or ask for what they need.

Finally, understanding what your child needs is not as simple as food, water shelter. The things that we each need to survive and thrive are complex and unique. In 1998, Dr William Glasser said ‘All our behaviour is our best attempt at the time, given the resources at our disposal, to meet our needs.’ He proposed five needs that have been refined in ‘The Phoenix Cups’ – Mastery, Connection, Safety, Fun and Freedom. Every child has a unique needs profile requiring different amounts of each, in different ways. Learning what your child’s unique needs are will help you to teach them how to fill those needs in appropriate ways.

So, if you are keen to teach your child self-regulation skills then this is what to do.

  1. Take a step back, watch, reflect and find out what is causing stress and frustration.
  2. Reflect on your own ability to self-regulate and adjust appropriately.
  3. Use foreseeable moments of dysregulation to display self-regulation and coach your child through the situation.
  4. Learn what needs your child has and talk to them about ways to fill their needs.

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