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Helping our Children Self-Regulate

The meltdown. You’ve experienced it before: you’re in the middle of Target and your child just decided that she MUST have the newest “Beanie Boo” (OK, maybe that part is just me) and when I put it back on the shelf, she suddenly goes into meltdown mode. This turns into full-blown sobbing, shallow breathing, (maybe even holding her breath) and I’m trying desperately to get her to stop crying. How can we help our children navigate these emotions? Not just regarding Beanie Boo’s, but all of the big emotions our little people feel – how can we help them self-regulate?

First, it is helpful to understand how our parasympathetic nervous system works. When we are in a regulated state, the parasympathetic nervous system is activated. When we are in a state of regulation, we are able to think logically, make conscious choices, communicate, engage in learning or work, and be in a place of open curiosity and enjoyment.  This state of regulation is sometimes misunderstood as “calm” or “relaxed.”  While “calm” and “relaxed” may be experiences we have when our parasympathic nervous system is activated, it is not always the case.  We can be in a state of regulation and feel excitement, joy, curiosity, frustration, or anger as long as we are regulating our response to the incoming information/event and our response. 

This is where our capacity as human beings to self-regulate or co-regulate comes into play.  Consider a newborn baby.  This baby relies on a care giver to provide external (co-regulation) when the baby is experiencing stress (hunger, sleepiness, discomfort).  The care giving provided to infants establishes a pattern of soothing and regulation that helps us move from distress to rest and digest.

Self-Regulation is your response to a perceived stressor. We engage in behaviors that help us to regulate when we realize we are entering a state of distress or disregulation. Some examples might be taking a nap, deep breathing, meditation, exercise, calling a friend, etc. The goal is to move back into a state of regulation (AKA parasympatheric activation). Once we reach this state, we are able to digest information, engage, learn, and be self-aware.

When our children are outside their window of tolerance it is essential that we assist them in learning how to regulate (AKA move back to a state of parasympathetic arousal) through an intense emotion, experience, or challenge.  It is important to notice that we teach regulation to move towards and through the challenge not regulate to move away from! 

Here are some ways we can teach our children to regulate towards a challenge so that we can help them return to this parasympathetic state: 

  • MODEL slow and deep breathing (instead of saying, "take a deep breath," model this breathing for them)
  • Get their body moving! (think: dance party, jumping jacks, etc.)
  • Help them name their body sensations
  • Encourage them to name their emotions
  • Orient yourself/your child to the present moment
  • Orient yourself/your child to your safety in the moment

Understanding how to self-regulate is the first step in teaching our child how to regulate his/her emotions. What are some strategies you use? Is this something you or your child struggle with?

Our Facebook page is all about regulation tips and strategies this week. Make sure to follow us!