Temper tantrums, hitting or biting, withdrawal, anxiety, or teenage rebellion — these are only a handful of outbursts that can make you second guess your parenting skills. But here’s the thing: you shouldn’t. The reality is, your child may just be struggling with self-regulation.
Before understanding self-regulation, it’s important to first understand ‘executive function’.
Remember the games we used to play as children? Red Light, Green Light, for instance. When the “cop” says “green light!”, the other players race towards him or her. And when the “cop” says “red light!”, everyone must freeze. And anyone who moves during “red light!” is eliminated.
Not only is it fun to play, but it’s also a game of learning and fine-tuning one crucial skill: executive functioning. This skill is cognitive; monitoring and managing three functions:
- Flexible attention: the ability to pay attention to instructions or switch focus from one activity or person to another.
- Working memory: the ability to retain information long enough to follow through with the instructions.
- Inhibitory control: the ability to respond appropriately to impulsive actions.
While these three functions are cognitive-based, a fourth skill to keep in mind is emotional intelligence — the ability to notice, understand, manage, and regulate emotions.
While we can’t control the feelings and thoughts that pop into our heads, we can control what we do with them.— Nir Eyal, author of Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life
When all four work together, it’s called self-regulation. Simply put, self-regulation allows people to manage their emotions and behaviors before acting on them.
These skills aren’t innate, but they are teachable. And they’re important to learn, especially when the going gets rough.
Why Self-Regulation Is Important for Children
If dealing with emotions is a big deal for adults, then it’s a huge deal for children.
When they’re upset, angry, or even excited, their actions (or reactions, depending on the situation) may seem overboard and that can be overwhelming for us as parents.
However, our children aren’t to blame. They just haven’t learned how to manage their emotions, especially the strong ones.
When that happens, it’s hard for them to use their executive function skills. And that can make it difficult for them to listen, remember rules, and stay focused on any given activity.
Children with poor self-regulation skills can have emotional and behavioral problems, including being anxious, irritable, impulsive, destructive, or aggressive. One research paper points out, “adolescents who do not regulate their emotions and behavior are more likely to engage in risk-taking and unhealthy behaviors.”
On the other hand, the children who are able to self-regulate make healthy choices for themselves and those around them, according to Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child. They state, “when children have opportunities to develop executive function and self-regulation skills, individuals and society experience lifelong benefits.”
As you may be aware (especially during the pandemic), social interaction is incredibly important for mental health. It will also help your child foster a sense of belonging and safety, be happier, and learn to be a compassionate citizen of the world.
Helping Your Child With Self-Regulation
There are many ways you can help your child with self-regulation. This includes teachers, peers, and culture. But family plays a key role, especially parents.
Here are three ways you can help:
#1: Be a model for self-regulation
While we’re trying to teach our children about self-regulation, we also have to be aware of our own.
Whether we’re aware of it or not, we’re constantly teaching our children. The way to act and react — when we’re angry, upset, sad, irritated, silent, in love, happy, excited, or whatever the emotional behavior may be — our children pick up on the cues, internalize, and then, copy them.
It seems, regardless of what the culture is, “overimitation — in which a child copies everything an adult does, even irrelevant or silly actions — is a universal human trait.”
Like parent, like child. So it’s essential to model the behavior you want to see your child exhibit.
#2: Adopt a conscious parenting style
Raising a little human is not an easy job and you may well feel like an imposter at times. But this is a mission you chose to take on.
As a parent, you want to nurture your child, love them, and give them the best you can offer. And one of the best things you can do for them (and possibly, yourself) is to be a conscious parent.
We, parents, are the masters of projection. We ad lib, willy nilly, put onto our children all our own ideations, our ideologies, our belief systems, and our emotions.— Dr. Shefali Tsabary, author of Mindvalley’s Conscious Parenting Mastery Quest
Just like the metaphor of putting on the oxygen mask before you help your child, conscious parenting is not so much about your child — it’s about your inner child.
It’s about making peace with your own childhood baggage so that you can show up as a better parent and have a more authentic and meaningful relationship with your offspring.
#3: Teach them how to be indistractable
When our children aren’t behaving the way we prefer them to or when they don’t seem to want to pay attention, we often look outwards to point the blame at something. It’s technology — iPads, smartphones, and what have you — that get the grunt of it.
We often cling to simple answers because they serve a story we want to believe — that kids do strange things because of something outside our control, which means that those behaviors are not really their (or our) fault.— Nir Eyal, author of Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life
Nir suggests helping our children manage their distraction by feeding them with ‘psychological nutrients’:
- Autonomy: the ability to act on their own free will over their choices, like allowing toddlers to put on their shoes on their own or encouraging teenagers to step into their discomfort zone.
- Competence: the ability to know how to handle situations (socially and emotionally) effectively, such as talking about what they’re learning in school and how useful those lessons are in life.
- Relatedness: the ability to feel important to others and that others are important to them, like spending time with friends or people their age.
Help them find a balance between their online and offline worlds, and teach them by being indistractable yourself.
Help Yourself Before You Help Others
Self-regulation is like swimming — children need to be taught before they dive in. And as a parent, you can help them do so.
However, before you do, you also need to know how to swim (or else it’d be like teaching a rock how to float). And it’s never too late to learn to self-regulate in order to be a great role model for your child.
The first (and major) step you can take is to work on your own internal triggers — to understand what causes them and how to heal them. And Nir can guide you. Head over to Mindvalley and learn from one of the world’s leading experts in habit formation and focus in the Be Focused and Indistractable Quest.