Self regulation skill building is essential for a kind, harmonious and productive home or classroom. Why?
Let’s be honest. When emotions derail us from integrity with our principles and values, we make a mess and often damage relationships. If we get mired in “I’m right, you’re wrong”, we separate ourselves from others and from being with what is. When we can pause, however, to evaluate and respond rather than react, we feel better about the outcome and ourselves. Bottom line, when we self-regulate, we diminish stress and engage in less squabbling, conflicts, and disrespectful behavior. Simultaneously, we enhance trust, cooperation, and caring.
Modeling & Mirroring
To start to grow self-regulation skills, children need healthy modeling. They need to see, and more importantly experience, the adults in their lives as comfortable, capable, and connected. Adults who can sustain a consistently calm and competent presence are modeling healthy self-regulation, even though they are not talking about it or directly teaching it. The child’s nervous system entrains to the adult’s coherent resonance and self-regulates accordingly.
Appropriate mirroring is also needed in order for a child to develop self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and social skills. The adult acts as a “mirror” – observing and naming for the child his behaviors, feelings, and activities as well as reinforcing what’s expected.
In this way, the child learns language, what is going on both around and in him, and how to behave. For example, when the child is hungry and reaching for food, the adult might say: I see you want some food. You must be hungry. I’m happy to give you some. First, let’s wash our hands and then use our words and good manners.
How to be Healthy Mirror
It takes lots of mirroring, support, and practice for young children to cultivate the executive functions in the frontal brain, which enable them to make thoughtful choices and balance emotions because their brains are literally under construction. So don’t get discouraged. Use teaching your child social-emotional skills as good practice for deepening your own mindfulness, compassion, and equanimity. When you are self-regulated, you powerfully impact those around you.
Example: We need to leave for school now. You can get in the car yourself, or I can help you. If the child does not comply, you pick them up and put them in the car. No anger, just follow-through. As they cry and scream, let them know you see how they feel and understand:
I hear that you really don’t want to and it’s really hard to have to. But today is Friday – so it’s a school day for you and a work day for me. Tomorrow is Saturday – no school or work – so tomorrow, you can play outside all morning.
I can see you are upset and angry. I feel that way too sometimes when I can’t do what I want. That’s when I do my Fish Breath. It helps me shake it off and feel better. Want to try with me?
Self Regulation skill building happens when a child feels safe
Remember, when your child gets triggered, their behavior is not about you. It’s about some feeling or thought in them that they can’t be with. Your job is to be the strong container for their safety, the mirror for what’s actually happening, and the embodiment of neutral, curious caring that will help re-connect them to their own understanding and calm. The key to building a foundation for self-regulation during tantrums is not to react to their emotion with more emotion. When you contain children compassionately while holding clear boundaries, they learn how to do that for themselves.
- Remain neutral, observe and mirror (I see how angry you are that you can’t ….)
- Allow feelings, encouraging awareness of the body (are your angry feelings in your feet? Does it help them pass when you stomp? That’s smart that you know how to help your angry feelings out.)
- Stop any unsafe behavior physically while being verbally compassionate (I’m going to hold you until you can hold yourself and not hit anyone or anything. I love you and will stay right here until these big feelings pass. Everybody has them sometimes. Where can you let them out of your body? Let’s do some Bunny Breaths … good… and now some slow Bear Breaths. )
6 Techniques to support Self Regulation Skill Building
Below are six techniques from Dr. Dan Siegel’s excellent book, The Whole Brain Child, for supporting children through meltdowns and for building self-regulation skills:
- Name It to Tame It: Corral raging right-brain behavior through left-brain storytelling, appealing to the left brain’s affinity for words and reasoning to calm emotional storms and bodily tension.
- Engage, Don’t Enrage: Keep your child thinking and listening, instead of purely reacting.
- Move It or Lose It: Use physical activities to shift your child’s emotional state.
- Let the Clouds of Emotion Roll By: Guide your children when they are stuck on a negative emotion, and help them understand that feelings come and go.
- SIFT: Help children pay attention to the Sensations, Images, Feelings, and Thoughts within them so that they can make better decisions and be more flexible.
- Connect Through Conflict: Use discord to encourage empathy and greater social success.