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Teaching Children the art of Self Control

Written By Stephanie Fairbairn Parent Educator Ngala for Off Spring Magazine 2015

Self regulation is a lifelong learning process, and starts from the very first days when, as babies, we needed help regulating or adjusting our sleep patterns, hunger and even body temperature! Self regulation is achieved through a nurturing relationship with caring adults, most often parents. By responding promptly and sensitively to a baby’s needs, a baby learns that their needs will be met (most of the time) and this builds a bond of trust which forms the foundation for the development of self regulation.

As parents we may expect a lot of from our baby – especially in the sleep department! But, in fact, learning that elusive ‘self settling’ part of self regulation begins with small steps such as a baby looking away when they need a break from too much stimulation, or sucking their thumb when they start feeling tired. These are the first steps towards developing their own responses to managing their feelings and behaviour. Babies need a lot of help from caring adults to achieve self regulation –so when you pick your baby up to give them a cuddle after a door slams and scares them – you are providing them with a calming response which helps them bring their emotions back into balance. With time, babies build on this external calming and develop their own internal mechanisms to regulate. Consistency and repetition from caring adults are the keys to strengthening connections in the brain so that over time self regulation develops.

The next stage of developing self regulation involves your spirited toddler watching intently at everything you do!  Toddlers take on board how you act as role models. So if there is a tendency for you to fly into a rage with other motorists on a regular basis – there is a good chance this behaviour will be echoed by your toddler!  We can’t be ”the ‘model parent’ every minute of every day, but it is inevitable that our body language, tone and verbal response to everyday events paint a clear picture to our children of how to respond to life. Everyday activities you do around or with your child like working on a puzzle until it is finished, persisting with cleaning the stain off the carpet, or waiting in line at the supermarket without losing it! – all convey to your child how they are expected to behave ….you don’t need to say a thing – your actions speak louder than words!

Everyday experiences which may not be helpful to your child developing self regulation include:

    • never having to wait for birthdays or Christmas for the next present;- this may lead to difficulties in impulse control;
    • having a constant stream of snacks with no expectation that they wait for the next mealtime – they may have a hard time managing hunger signals or appetite.;
    • never encouraged to wait their turn or share their things , may find it hard to make friends in the future!

All these childhood lessons are sometimes hard at the time – we may feel like giving up at the checkout and buying them the lolly because they are building up to a tantrum – but ask yourself -what learning opportunity have we just missed if we do so? Parenting is challenging because the everyday tasks take so much time – so much patience and SO much self control on our part – this is the investment we make now to pass on these skills to our children for later.

Children need a lot of positive modeling, but as they become more competent with language and have more vocabulary, we can reflect their and our emotional states with explanations. So when baby sister  knocks over big sisters tower of blocks again and she shoves her out of the way and starts whining – we step into the war zone and start by understanding  the  toddlers emotional state – she has these big out of control feelings that sometimes lead to hitting, screaming and lashing out.

“Oh dear, Matilda has knocked your blocks – I can see you are angry – you spent a long time making it and now you are upset. It is very frustrating to have your game interrupted. Lets take your things up to the table and Matilda can watch from the floor.” As children develop the skill to name their feelings, they begin to transition from ‘physically acting out’ behaviours – to having the internal dialogue to manage their emotions before they become physical!.This takes a lot of practice and time. Similarly, if WE lose our temper more quickly than normal – we should follow that up with an explanation when we are calmer.  “Mum shouted and got angry because I was feeling frustrated we took so long to get home and I am so tired today – maybe next time we are running late I can count to 5 before I feel  frustrated”. Resolving an out of control situation like this does not diminish your authority as a parent. Some parents will worry that apologising or correcting their own behaviour weakens their parenting position – this is not the case, and helps to teach another valuable life lesson – resolving conflict and offering an apology when we are in the wrong.

Tips to encourage healthy self regulation and control

    • Set clear, short , instructions and boundaries
    • Reflect back their feelings so they can label their emotions
    • Play games that encourage patience and attention like card games, matching pairs and hide and seek
    • Foster ‘sharing’ by using the phrase ‘taking turns’ – this is more meaningful language for this age.
    • Remember parents and other carers are the biggest source of behaviour modelling for kids!

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