Why it's Never too Late to Help Your Kids Regulate
I recently put a post out on my Insta, wondering about the questions you want my advice on :) Here's the first in the series!
Q. How can I help my 5yo regulate his emotions (or is it too late?)
I hear this a lot from distressed parents, with much beating themselves up, as they don't feel like they're doing enough or know enough to help their kids manage their moods.
The good thing is, it's definitely not too late to help your child by age 5, to learn skills to calm themselves (ie. regulate). You may have heard that kids brains are 90% developed by the age of 5 - which means, size wise and structurally, they're most of the way there. But the remaining 10% takes until age 25ish (the frontal lobes - the thinking/rationalising/planning bit). Their brains will continue to do huge amounts of learning, growing and changing.
Don't stress, expecting our kids to regulate at age 5, is a bit like saying, they'll never learn algebra, because they're only doing simple addition in Kinder.
Emotion Regulation is a Skill That Takes Years to Learn
Our kids need to bare witness to emotion regulation over and over again, from the parents first.
And if you're a parent who was parented during and before the 90s, then you'll probably need to learn a heck of a lot of self reflection and your own development of skills, to be aware of your triggers for your own mood, so you can look after yourself and regulate you.
Many of us, of that generation (90s and before), were parented in authoritarian ways.
An era of children who should be seen and not heard.
How on earth do you think you can be calm with your own kids 100% of the time, when you were encouraged, as a kid, to stop whining, stop crying, be quiet or quietened with threats of actual use of physical force?
So how do you learn to be a gentle, connected parent, who doesn't yell and teaches your kids how to regulate?
-You either learned it as a child, from your own parents/caregivers
-You were born with an extremely calm temperament
- You've gone to therapy or engaged in work to manage your own triggers, improve your self worth, developed high self awareness and skills to ride the complex waves of your emotions
- You're compassionate with yourself and try not to send yourself on enormous guilt trips!
- You need to keep in mind, that even the most regulated, connected, secure parents, are likely only attuning to our kids with what they need, about 50% of the time
And that's totally ok. Kids can still have secure attachments with their parents, feel loved, and learn the ability to regulate, even when their parent's behaviour isn't perfect.
So What Can I Do to Help My Child?
Emotion regulation is a milestone, that all kids can reach, to varying degrees, at different times. And for some kids, emotion regulation will be tougher, as they may just be born with more sensitive nervous systems (as at least 15-20% of the population is).
Brains are easily hijacked by big emotions, particularly, with kids. Their brains are so new still! I'm a psychologist and I've studied brains since age 18. I've practiced psychology for about 16 years, I go to therapy, I have a HUGE set of tools to use and I STILL flip my lid sometimes - I don't immediately reach for the skills I need to, when I'm upset (as I'm a kid of the 80s and 90s, along with a good dose of family trauma).
So how on earth do we expect our little people to do it perfectly every time?
We need to accept first and foremost, that our little (and the bigger ones too!!) people will have bad days, difficult moments and won't know what to do with themselves (just like us as adults), when they're upset.
Let's start with a framework, that we're all messy imperfect humans, living in an imperfect world. We'll all be learning about ourselves, for the rest of our lives and we're never going to reach the metaphorical pinnacle of the mountain, and just say, that "that's it, I've learned everything I need to know about life and how I should be thinking, feeling, behaving, doing and interacting, with every other human being on the planet.
Here's 6 Tips for You to Teach Your Child Regulation Skills:
Start with you (I think I made that clear already!!): Make sure your cup is full as it possibly can be - I know that's a toughy. Are you tired? Are you fed? Are you drinking too much alcohol? Too much caffiene (it'll make you grouchy, as it drops your blood sugar, once it's wearing off. How are your hormones? PMS (are you more likely to get upset at certain times of your cycle?). When was the last time you did something nice and calming for you? I know it might not be possible to take a whole day to yourself, let alone a night or two, on a regular basis (if you can though, DOOO ITTT!), but even moments to self to sit down and have a cuppa, read a book, or just put your feet up for 10 minutes are super important).
Modelling is where it's at, for showing your kids how to regulate themselves (but bear in mind, it can take years and years of repetition, before your kid starts engaging in the strategies you are hoping they will participate in.
2. Be aware of your own triggers and heal your past traumas or childhood stuff (as children will trigger this, in all the uncontrollable ways.
When are you most likely to get upset. Bed time? School mornings? When they hit? When they won't listen? Write these down and go into these moments. Realise that this is a sensitive time for you and focus on getting better at handling these moments, not that you will learn to love it and handle it perfectly, but that you can get better at it.
I strongly encourage you to learn more about yourself, do some inner work, through reading, listening to parenting podcasts (that you don't find too triggering - as sometimes this can be a mine field of heading into a road of feeling guilty), finding a decent therapist, who specialises in these areas on self development and parenting and/or childhood trauma (doesn't need to be a psychologist).
3. Learn the art of self compassion
So so tricky I know! When it isn't your strength to speak kindly to yourself and you're quick to point out your faults, it's not easy learn. But you can! Check out my free self compassion MP3 here, for a starting point on how to practice learning how to accept you. I bet you find it easy to have compassion for your child, but...
"Your compassion is incomplete, if it doesn't include yourself"
Learning how to speak kindly to yourself, shows your child how to speak kindly to themselves. So it's a pretty good reason, to start working on it for you. Kids are very very good at picking up on everything in the house, even when you feel like you're hiding things from them. They can pick up on the energy and feelings in your house, so let them catch you learning, growing, taking responsibility and speaking kindly to yourself. If you feel good about yourself, then it will be easier for your kids to feel good about themselves, in the long run too.
4. Be a Container for Your Child's Feelings
If your child is more likely melt down with you, express their tears, angry, hitting etc. Then well done, your child feels safe with you! Traumatised kids learn to shut down. They learn to not cry and don't feel safe to express themselves freely. So, if your child is more reactive with you, then that's totally cool!
Being a container means that we need to have a big free space inside ourselves that can learn to sit, be with and make space for whatever our child is expressing. This looks like validating your child "I see you're so upset right now," "I hear you, I believe you" "that's so upsetting for you." Sometimes your child may settle or sometimes it takes longer to settle, as there is a need for the emotion to be released.
To work on calming yourself, so you can tolerate all their emotion, trigger your vagus nerve (which is part of your parasympathetic nervous system and is on when we feel relaxed):
Massage your ears or the back of your neck
Fill your mouth up with saliva (very weird I know, but at the very least you won't be able to say anything unhelpful!)
Breathe all the way out as far as you can until you don't have any air left in your lungs
And walk away (if possible) when you notice yourself getting too angry, if you're saying unhelpful things or if you need a moment, to reconnect with yourself.
5. What's Underneath Your Child's Behaviour?
Often the thing our child is focussing or if it is a seemingly irrational thing you can't reason with them about, think about what could be underneath it? Frequently, there is something else that might be bothering them in the first place - tired, needing connection with you (if they've been away from you at school/childcare/with a grandparent/babysitter or if you just haven't had any 1:1 time for a bit etc) hungry, getting sick, having a bad day, anxiety/fear about something. See if you can dig around later, if you're wondering why your child might be behaving in such a strong manner. Behaviour is like the tip of the ice berg - it's often not what you see on the surface, that is actually the issue.
6. Wait until they're calm, before you correct
Talk about the preferred behaviour you would like to see, once everyone is calm. Focus on waiting for the storm to pass and then come back to the problem. Brain storm together how your child could do something differently next time, draw pictures together, write it on a whiteboard, use soft toys to role play. And repeat repeat repeat. Regulation in your child requires hundreds and hundreds of experiences with a regulated parent, before they can start to create the neural connections to help them calm, when distressed. As mentioned for some kids, they will need more of this and some will need less. Some kids will be more calm than others, just like adults! We're all different and that's ok :)
7. Bonus category! Remember, parenthood is a relationship first and foremost, not a skill to be acquired :)
Ill leave that one right there to let you ponder this beautiful reminder from Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Mate.
So, take it easy on yourself and your child. Parenting is a messy, imperfect, beautiful journey. There isn't any destination to reach. Focus on unconditional love and nurturing your relationship together. Not beating yourself up for not being calm enough, questioning yourself about what you or your child are doing wrong.
Our children aren't maths problems to fix, they are sunsets to witness
Sarah Purvey is the founder and director of Eastern Shore Psychology, in Hobart, Tasmania. Sarah predominantly supports those with PTSD, workers compensation matters and parents during the perinatal period and well beyond. Sarah also enjoys supporting psychologists to have rewarding and long psychology careers.