For years, I tried desperately to understand why my son would go from a fun-loving charmer to a hot mess of frustration within seconds. I worked hard on how I responded to his frustration, but was always met with my own inability to calm down.
I read parenting, anger management and spirituality books; I meditated; I sought advice from counsellors; and I spoke with parenting experts. But I could not stop myself from reacting to his emotions with my own. I wondered what was wrong with him or my parenting.
It wasn't until I learned about self-regulation that I finally understood what was happening with him — and with me.
The term "self-regulation" is widely used and has various meanings. You may have noticed a section dedicated to it on your child's report card, along with a list of criteria that includes:
- Sets own individual goals and monitors progress towards achieving them.
- Seeks clarification or assistance when needed.
- Assesses and reflects critically on own strengths, needs and interests.
- Identifies learning opportunities, choices and strategies to meet personal needs and achieve goals.
- Perseveres and makes an effort when responding to challenges.
Self-regulation is also concerned with how we manage our stressors, rather than the impulses or behaviours that arise from them.
This means that when we understand our behaviour, rather than trying to control it, we can identify and reduce the stressors and conditions that cause the behaviour.
According to Stuart Shankar, a distinguished research professor of philosophy and psychology at York University, and a self-regulation guru, a child's or adult's ability to thrive — to complete tasks, form friendships, learn and even love — depends on their ability to self-regulate.
A child who has trouble paying attention, or controlling anger and impulses is not weak or lacking self-discipline — the child is not self-regulating.
Stressors that lead to behavioural issues for children can include poor sleep, environmental stressors (too much noise, a large crowd, too much light), an uncomfortable chair or too much screen time.
As parents, it is not our job to teach our children how to control their behaviour in highly stressful situations, but to recognize what it is that causes them stress in the first place (whether we can or cannot relate), and to reduce it. Then, when they are in a calm and focused state, we can coach them on what an appropriate response to stress would be.
Hence, if your child keeps acting up every time they go to a certain play date or after school program, you may want to look at what is consistent with each scenario. There may be something that acts as a stressor for the child, even though they may be happy and excited heading into the situation.
The five steps of self-regulation are as follows:
- Read the signs and reframe the behaviour: See that the child is in distress (acting out, crying, becoming aggressive, etc.), be mindful and present as you witness the change in them, and withhold judgment. And rather than labelling it as a misbehaviour, realize it is a stress-behaviour. Then, go to them.
- Identify the stressors: Your irritation with what seemed like a failure on behalf of your child ("here we go again; she can't control herself") may have blocked your view of what was causing your child to act out. Try to identify the stressors that you never noticed before, and you will begin to feel compassion towards your child rather than anger. Over time, you be able to spot triggers more easily.
- Reduce the stress: Remove your child from what it is that is upsetting them. You may be so used to using this moment as a "teaching opportunity," but it is more important to reduce the overall level of arousal. Now that you are more mindful and less reactive when your child acts up, you will be able to see the triggers of stress before they even fully affect your child. For example, if you know that your child doesn't operate well on less sleep and is easily over-stimulated, taking her to a loud environment with a lot of noise and people may leave her raw and depleted. She will be less likely to respond appropriately to certain stressors.
- Reflect: Talk to your child about what it felt like for them right before they acted out. Ask them about their bodies and what was happening with their breathing, hearts, etc. Have them start to recognize when their bodies are entering fight or flight mode, so that in the future they can become masters of their own responses and see the fury coming.
- Respond: When your child is calm, teach them techniques they can use to return to a calm and focused state when they enter state of high arousal (count to ten, breathe in and out deeply four times, etc.).
It is imperative that parents and caregivers stay calm through this whole process, as we are the ones modelling the steps to proper self-regulation.
It is important to note that our ability to self-regulate has its limits, according to Shankar. "Like a tank of gas, it eventually dwindles," he explains, "leaving a kid — or an adult — simply unable to control his or her impulses. That is, misbehaving kids aren't choosing to be difficult. They literally can't help themselves."
Shankar says that learning how to self-regulate is like building a muscle. One needs to maintain the practice, in order for the muscle to be strong and continue to work. This also means that, in order for children to learn how to self-regulate, parents must also practice self-regulation to model rational behaviour.
By looking at my son's behaviour through the lens of self-regulation, I was able to see that, even though he was having trouble controlling his impulses, he wasn't choosing to be difficult or to trigger me. There were stressors setting him off that I had been unaware of for too long. Once I stopped trying to manage his behaviour, I was able to see what was draining him, and was able to take steps to reduce his stressors.
I also realized that I had to practice self-regulation as well. It wasn't that I had to meditate every morning or to follow a certain parenting method, in order to become this ideal (let's face it, fictional) version of myself. I had to learn and practice self-regulation, in order to model to him an appropriate response to stress.
One of the toughest parenting challenges we face is not necessarily dealing with our children's behaviour — it's learning to understand and deal with our own behaviour as well.
Trish Bentley is a writer and mother of three sons. Through her informative and relatable articles on parenting hot topics, "Unapologetic Parent" will examine the pressures and scrutiny parents often face when making personal choices on how to parent.