5 ways to teach self regulation strategies to children

Developing emotional self regulation strategies is an area I am currently working on with my own children. With a five-year-old and an almost three-year-old it can feel like a never ending cycle of progress, meltdowns, and more teaching. However, what I’ve come to realize is that children will have large emotions and occasional tantrums even when we teach them the right way to behave when frustrated or angry. As parents, we are teaching them to balance extreme negative emotions, but there will still be highs and lows. Understanding that it is unrealistic to expect our children never to have negative emotions, the goal is to help children self regulate on their own and eventually to react calmly to all types of situations without always needing us to step in and calm them down. Here are 5 ways we can help children learn to self regulate:

1. Use the behavior skill of Preventive Teaching

The best time to teach your child is during a neutral time before a difficult situation occurs. With the skill of Preventive Teaching, (LINK) you teach your child steps for how to react appropriately to the situations he/she struggles with and then practice using those steps. As a part of Preventive Teaching, discuss techniques they can use to calm down. This could include taking deep breaths, counting down from 10, or hugging a pillow. When working as in-home social worker I would often make a “calm down box” or create a “calm area” with a child, that included items they had created and chosen to help calm down. Then if they became escalated they could go to those items to avoid further escalation.

With my own children, my daughter struggled with reacting appropriately when her brother took something away from, and my son struggled when told “No.” My husband and I wrote individual skill steps that included taking a deep breath, counting down from 5, asking nicely, and then coming talk to us it they still needed help. Then we sat down with them together and used Preventive Teaching to teach the steps.

LEARN MORE ABOUT PREVENTIVE TEACHING

The last three steps of Preventive Teaching include role-play, however, role-playing is so important for success in emotional regulation that it needs its own discussion outside of Preventive Teaching. At the end of teaching a skill first show your child how to use the skill through role-play, and then have them do it at least 3 times after they have done it correctly. Yes, there really should be that much role-play. One time of you modeling to ensure they understand, several times of your child practicing until they correctly use all the steps, and then 3 more times role-playing it the right way. Give feedback in between each role-play so they know what they are doing well and what they need to remember or improve on for the next role-play.

2. Role-play situations where they struggle

Role-play during Preventive Teaching is only one opportunity to show use of the skill. Also set-up role-plays sporadically throughout the day so they can continue to practice the correct way to calm down. Increase role-play frequency when you have first taught a skill or if you notice that they are struggling with self regulation. There will be occasional regression of past skills—this means you need to direct your attention and reshape their regulatory behavior. It does not mean you need to start completely over or that what you have taught is not effective. It’s normal for people of all ages to return to past negative behavior, so if your child is turning back to their negative behaviors, spend more time role-playing to review what they have learned, and set-up a reward for a short time to reinforce use of the positive behavior again.

LEARN MORE ABOUT ROLE-PLAYING

One of the biggest pitfalls of teaching children how to self regulate is a parent’s tendency to give in or take the struggle away, especially when in public. For example, letting your child have a treat while waiting in the grocery line because they cried and asked over and over again even after you said “No” is a form of giving in. Taking the struggle away would be preventing situations that you know your child will react negatively too, such as giving your child the orange cup every time they need a drink because they will yell and argue over receiving any other color. Although this will indeed stop most negative emotions, it does not prepare your child to cope with negative feelings when they happen. Of course there are going to be times when it is appropriate to resolve a situation for your child or you will act to help your child calm down, but as much as possible this should be done through giving your child prompts and allowing him/her to use what they have learned on their own.

3. Don’t give in or take the struggle away

Another tip for not giving in is to avoid discussing the issue they are upset about until they calm down. Switch your focus to giving prompts for calming down and explain you will not talk about the candy they want until they show they can speak calmly. Also try to avoid stepping in immediately, instead allowing time for them resolve the situation or argument on their own. For most common, everyday situations it will take less than a minute for your child to begin calming themselves down on their own.

When helping a child use new strategies for calming down, set them up with all the tools to be successful before another difficult situations occur. One way to do this is through establishing a tracking system that leads to an eventual reward. Changing behavior is difficult and not always desirable, so providing positive motivators will encourage your child to use the self regulation strategies they have learned. It also sets up controlling their emotions in a positive way so that their first experience in regulating themselves is positive. Make the reward age appropriate so it stays motivating. Young child should earn immediate tangible rewards to reinforce the behavior, whereas teenagers understand earning tokens or tracking on a chart to build up to a larger reward.

Another important aspect of teaching emotional regulation is helping your child recognize that they are in control of decreasing their physical responses once they feel a negative emotion. Many children believe that responses just happen or blame their response on someone else’s behavior. Using self regulation activities will help your child recognize their control. Using a pulse oximeter is one example of a self regulation activity. First have your child establish a baseline number of their resting heart rate. Then teach them some calming techniques, such as deep breathing or relaxing the muscles and have them watch as their heart rate goes a little lower. Once they understand their heart rate, discuss a difficult situation in the home and have them monitor as their heart rate rises. Take a break and allow them to use the calming techniques again until they are able to bring their heart rate back down. Watch the following video.

When praising and giving correction use the words “you have earned” and give options so they recognize they are the ones controlling the positive and negative consequences and can link the choice to the consequence.

1. Establish a reward to work toward

2. Show your child how they are in control

While helping your child learn how to self regulate pay extra attention to other factors that may be amplifying their negative emotions such as lack of sleep, hunger, bad nutrition, and overstimulation. Preventing or resolving these issues (and educating your child about these factors) will increase your child’s ability to self regulate. In severe cases, anxiety, autism or other mental health conditions may affect your child’s ability to calm their emotions, especially on their own. If your child has any of these diagnoses, seek outside help to aid in teaching to self regulate.

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