As parents with young children, we are guaranteed to have moments that test us every single day.
But they’re also the most profound moments for us and our kids to learn about self-regulation.
As Dr Stuart Shanker told Kinderling Conversation, the original scientific definition of self-regulation is: how we manage stress.
“Sometimes kids manage stress in ways that lead to more problems down the road, so we need to teach them how to navigate it effectively,” says Stuart. “To do this, we ourselves need to be in a calm, balanced state.”
Here, Stuart shares 5 easy steps to help your child become successful at self-regulation:
Understand the difference between 'misbehaviour' and 'stress behaviour'. The difference is that misbehaviour means the child could have chosen differently. Stress behaviour, on the other hand, comes from systems deep inside the brain. This means the child isn’t choosing how they’re acting; it’s a brain response.
“You can tell it's stress behaviour by observing the signs," says Stuart. "Their voice changes, it goes up a little bit, becomes faster and a little shrill. Their eyes change, their facial expressions change. When we see these signs, we instantly need to recognise that our child didn’t want to behave this way, and we need to put a pause button on how we respond.”
Listen to Dr Shanker on Kinderling Conversation:
As a society, we have a very superficial understanding of what stress is. And stress is anything that requires the brain to burn energy to function. What we are seeing today is a generation of children who are over-stressed - once we begin to understand what these stressors are, we can reduce them.
Positive and negative stress exists for everyone, and children (like us all) need to learn how to manage both types of stress. Problems arise if there’s too much stress, and one of the major stressors children face now is too much sugar.
“Often, there’s too much sugar in the bloodstream and the child has to burn an awful lot of energy to bring it down to a safe level," Stuart advises. "Their brains can even work overtime at night to get rid of the glucose."
Parental stress also rubs off on children. “The demands on all of us are way too much – even reading the news of the day causes us stress. So, if we are stressed, it makes it harder for us to be in a calm state to help them become calm.”
Meltdowns are inevitable in childhood, and when they reach this point, it's important to know when and how to soothe them. Before we can help them learn how to deal with stress, we need to allow them to calm down - that's when they are most receptive and responsive.
“As parents, we need to learn to recognise the signs of getting close to the peak of their stress, so we can intercept,” says Stuart. "Sit with them and talk about what just happened. Ask them to describe what they're feeling and remind them to take deep breaths. You can also encourage them to try something that removes them energetically from the situation."
'Reduce' refers to your own behaviour as a parent. Your tone of voice and physical behaviour speaks volumes to a child.
"They're processing your body language. They look in your eyes, and on your face and listen for the intonation in your voice," says Stuart.
“Don’t try and explain this process to your children, because they learn best through their body by experiencing feelings of calm. Their body and their brain need to register this lesson."
Lower your voice and speak very gently to your child when they're upset. It doesn't matter if they don't know the words you're using. The important thing is that they 'get' the tone, and the love and the safety and the security you're offering in that moment of calm.
5. Restore and recover
Every single child is different, and you have to help each child learn what is genuinely restorative for them.
For some children, 'restore' means reading a book, heading outside to play for a while or even colouring in. Whatever helps them tap into a moment of calm.
Once they've achieved this moment of calm, you can consider them recovered and ready to head back into their day. And don't be surprised if what helps them find this calm changes over time - it's bound to, and that's OK.
“If you teach them the internal process of what it means to feel calm, then they will learn to find those feelings for themselves,” says Stuart.
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