How to help your child to self-regulate and WHY!

8th May, 2023
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Written by Angela Bush

Bachelor of Education (ECE), Dip Nursing, Dip Tch (ECE)
In their early years, young children are still developing the skills, resilience, and strategies for coping with life’s ups and downs. I like to remind parents that young children are in an apprenticeship - they are still learning (so many things!) and need a LOT of practice, guidance, and loving support to work stuff out.

I get it - parenting is constant. Sometimes it seems like your young child is in tears or “having a moment” every five minutes. They cry when they drop something, they cry when they don’t want to do something, they cry when they DO want something, they cry when you walk out the door, and they cry when another child takes their toy. Anywhere. Any time. They just. Cry!

How liberating it must feel to be so free in expressing emotions I say.

Unfortunately that doesn’t help you as a parent to know how to deal with these constant emotional expressions. What is important to understand is that the early years are when we all learned how to manage the expression of our feelings. Touchy feely I know. However, super important for growing into mature, non-manipulative, nonviolent, well-adjusted adults who know how to have healthy relationships without hurting themselves or others. Yes please!

Here are a few suggestions that can support your child to build their self-regulation muscles and that just might help you to survive this season of their life without joining in the crying (or turning to unhealthy distractions yourself! Glug glug!  );
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  • Remember that children’s feelings are just as legitimate as yours. Despite your instinct to say any of these things “You’re ok.” “That didn’t hurt.” “What are you crying about now?!” etc etc. Stop and think about how you might feel if someone you loved said these things to you when you felt hurt or sad?
  • Instead, demonstrate empathy (as much as you can authentically but not sarcastically muster). “Ouch that must have hurt!” “Tell me what has upset you?” Remember this young apprentice is watching your every move. How you empathise with them will be how they treat others. Your child is learning not only WHAT to do when someone is upset, but how to BE with others. I sure know I would prefer to experience the next generation as kind and empathetic.
Try not to do things that teach your child to squash or hide their feelings, or things that teach your child unhealthy ways to self-regulate. By this, I mean:

  • Threats: “If you don’t stop crying I am going to take your favorite dinosaur away!” The message: If I show my true feelings I am going to lose things that are important to me/get in trouble.
  • Distract the feelings: “Oh look it’s time for Paw Patrol” as you turn the telly on. The message: When you have big feelings that you can’t handle, find something to distract yourself from it.
  • Regulate with food: “Shall we have ice cream?” The message: Eat treats to make yourself feel better.

While all of these tactics might stop the crying for now and allow you some sanity, they are short-term fixes that can have long-term consequences. When these strategies are used enough times through a child’s early years, they learn to develop unhealthy ways to make themselves feel better that can translate into almighty unhealthy habits through life that often require therapy, medication or surgery. Repeat these things enough in early childhood and you cement the future habits for your child’s later years.

If children are able to learn from a young age that having big emotions is not a bad thing, and that expressing them is actually a good thing. They are gifted the opportunity to grow into emotionally intelligent adults with the skills to self-regulate. This means they are capable of managing their own feelings and will be less likely to look for external sources to resolve them. Emotionally intelligent people are also much nicer to be in relationships with!

What can you do when your child cries for the umpteenth time?

Listen. Genuinely. If you ask them to tell you what is bothering them, then by jingers listen! Stop what you are doing, get down to their level and give them a good hard listening to. Young children are very clever. They can spot a half-listener a mile away. You can guarantee when they are half listened to most of the time, they will develop extremely wiley ways of ensuring they get your attention the rest of the time.

You know how it feels when you are telling someone something that matters to you and they are scrolling through their phone mumbling “Uhuh” pretending to listen?

Genuine listening signals to your child that their feelings matter and they know you support them. Guess which teenagers are going to be more likely to come to their parents for support when the stakes are much higher at that time of life? The children who know their parents respect and respond to their feelings genuinely? Or, the parents who minimise their feelings and half listen?

My favorite quote of all time from Maya Angelou resonates so well here;

Say very little. Sometimes just eyeballing your child with empathetic eyes can give them the energy they need to self-regulate through this moment. Empathic eyes can be used from across a room, in an airplane or any of those places where talking is not really appropriate. Practice your empathetic eyes on your partner and see what happens.

Give your child your undivided attention during key care moments
i.e. bedtime routines, nappy changes, meal times. Undivided attention means eye-balling, listening, genuinely being together without a cell phone or thinking about other things. Children whose emotional tank is filled up during care moments throughout the day are more likely to feel content, and more likley to play independently i.e. without you needing to be part of the game constantly “mum look, mum come, dad see see see!”

Children who have plenty of emotional connection during care moments with people who love them are more able to self-regulate when they hit bumps in the road throughout the day. So the crying episodes become less frequent. Let’s face it, that nappy has to be changed, the child has to be taken to bed regardless, so you might as well be fully present in that moment. This frees you to be inside your head and to do other things outside of these times.

Magda Gerber taught us this useful rule of thumb

“Give 100% attention, 50% of the time.”

Don’t get me wrong, I am not for one minute suggesting that you turn into mother Teresa. ALL parents are human, and NO parents will ever get this stuff right all of the time. If you are able to support your child’s emotional development as much as you support their ABCs, you are increasing the odds that your young human is going to grow into a bigger human who is not a raging hot mess, who can weather sadness and pain, handle disappointment and who is a generally nice person for others to share the world with.

In the short term, if you can turn your thinking from “my child is a crybaby, my child is a hot mess” into “my child is learning to self-regulate” you might just get through the day with a slightly less irritable feeling.

Your child will FEEL the difference and probably not cry quite as much.
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About the Author of this blog

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Angela Bush
Mum, early childhood teacher, nurse, nanny, mentor, ECE centre owner, professional learning educator.
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Angela has been working with children and families for over thirty years and has an enduring passion for doing her bit to help make the world a better place for children. Angela is the founder of ECE Learning Unlimited and is on a mission to support parents and early childhood educators to be their best for our youngest children.