Self-Regulation: How to Get Your Kids to Be Self-Regulating

When our kids are upset, we all hope they can say; “You know I didn’t really like it when my brother was unkind to me, and that’s why I am so upset today.” Yet, it takes a highly evolved and emotionally intelligent human to know where their larger feelings of upset are coming from. Sometimes those upsets and emotional reactions come long after the initial offense and can also be triggered by an unrelated action. Instead most of us, kids and adults, take out our upsets on the safest and closest people in our orbit. We lash out at those who will love us no matter what. When this happens with our children many of us take those outbursts personally. Sometimes we believe our child is displeased with us or is being unkind because they do not understand this type of behavior is hurtful and not acceptable. This is just not true.

Our children do not want to make us angry or push us into our own upset. They are merely just reacting to what is happening for them emotionally. In these moments we have an opportunity for real change in our family dynamic. We are given a gift and have to decide in this instance how we will proceed. Will we react with anger and show how we feel by allowing their upset to upset us? Will we dole out punishment as a way to “teach” a lesson in morality? Will that lesson work? Is morality in question? What will come of this interaction if we react in one of these ways? I am imagining it will erode into something full of shame and upset, perhaps a fight or at the very least hurt feelings on both ends. This does not have to be our path.

If we can remain calm, leaving the upset where it belongs…with the child, we have a chance to model (teach) all kinds of amazing lessons, and over time those lessons will eventually be internalized. These moments are difficult and leave us in a state of panic. But, we are able to make a different choice, a non-reactionary choice—one of understanding and love. When a child presents with an off-track behavior; whining, crying, hitting, defiance, rigidity or anything that can be viewed as unsavory, we can try to connect.

Here are some ways to promote connection in sticky moments (alternatives to reactions and punishments):

1. Offer a hug or kiss.
2. Listen and empathize.
3. Set a limit and then listen to the upset that will ensue. Empathize with the feelings.
4. Offer Special Time (20 min of play, kid-driven, one-on-one).
5. Engage in some physical play, wrestling, hide ‘n’ seek, pillow fight.
6. Have a staring contest, thumb war.

Next time things become tight and difficult, try flipping the script and coming with love and connection instead of becoming upset and angry. I challenge you to do this for one day and see how it works for you. It won’t be seamless, and you will likely end up yelling, shaming or punishing when that was not your intention. This is human, and as long as we use it as a way to remediate our behavior, recognize our wrongdoing and start again with a renewed intention, that is the best we can do. Mistakes should be embraced. There’s no need for judgment. We know you are trying your best, and doing great work. Do not give up!


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