Helping kids self-regulate emotion and behavior

Self-regulation is an important skill to learn in order to reach our goals, manage our emotions, and lead a more balanced life. As parents, we can help our children learn these skills and express their emotions in ways other than a complete meltdown.

Both temperament and environment play a role in self-regulation.

Some children have trouble self-soothing even from infancy. They’re more highly affected by stimuli and have difficulty calming themselves down or finding their words. But environment also plays a role. If parents consistently give in to tantrums or create a chaotic environment at home, children will find it a challenge to learn self-regulatory skills.

Read on to find out how to help kids learn self-regulation skills.

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How do we teach kids self-regulation skills?

  • Create routines. Children do well when routines are predictable because they know what’s going to happen next. It’s calming, and it’s why children like the same story read over and over.
  • Calm their “downstairs brain.” In The Whole Brain Child, Drs. Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson talk about the downstairs and upstairs brain. The downstairs brain is the part of the brain where basic needs are met. It reacts to keep us safe and is where the “fight, flight, or freeze” response lies. The upstairs brain is where thinking occurs. It’s more complex, and we are able to process emotions, problem solve, and make good decisions in that part of the brain. In young children, the upstairs brain isn’t as developed, and if the downstairs brain is reacting, they can’t get to the upstairs part of their brain. Our role as parents is to help them calm the downstairs and lead them upstairs.
  • Remember to HALT. Some of the most common reasons for children’s misbehavior or tantrums are Hunger, Anger, Loneliness, and being Tired. If you can help soothe these issues, you can often stop tantrums before they get worse.
  • Provide choices. Younger kids want to have autonomy (“I can do it MYSELF!”), so we can help them feel like they have some say in the matter by giving them controlled choices. For example, if getting dressed is a struggle, you can say, “Do you want to wear the blue shoes or the red shoes?” This limits their choices to what is acceptable but allows them to feel more autonomy.
  • Allow time for free play. Children need time to reset by engaging in free play. It lets them channel their energy into physical activity and helps them to learn creative problem solving skills.
  • Give them a Quiet Place. A comfortable, low lit spot where they can calm themselves when they feel out of control will help them learn to regulate their emotions.

Provide children with a quiet space to where they can calm down.

Teaching children self-regulation skills will help prepare them for a future of goal setting, getting along with others, and managing stress. Old school games like Red Light Green Light, Mother May I, and Freeze Dance can also help (and be a lot of fun for families to do together). Here are some more ideas for how to help with tantrums.

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