I was recently standing in line at the grocery store and watched a common scenario play out in front of me.  A child about three years old was whining and crying for a candy bar.  The mom was obviously frazzled as she tried to unload her groceries onto the counter, pay attention to a baby that was becoming increasingly upset and retrieve all kinds of candy and contraband her three year old was trying to put into his pockets.  His demands and his cries for a candy bar got louder and louder.  The mom’s agitation became more evident.  Finally, she reached out and grabbed him by the arm and jerked him away from the candy rack which we all know was very intentionally and strategically placed to evoke such scenes.  But, when she pulled him to her side, the child did the “wet noodle” thing and flopped to the floor.   He began to kick and scream.  Mom’s demands became louder and her actions became more frantic as she tried to pull the child to his feet and demand his cooperation.   When it was all said and done, mom dragged the child kicking and screaming to the car while she pushed the cart with the screaming baby with her other hand.  I could see them getting into the car with both children screaming and a frazzled mom throwing her groceries into the back of the car.

Self regulation has been identified as one of the critical ingredients for well being and success in life.  Self regulation is defined as the capacity to manage strong emotions, behavior and thinking.   Let’s start with emotional regulation.  As with most things in parenting the answer begins with the adults.  Dr. Bruce Perry says, “The unorganized brain requires the full presence of a more organized brain to organize.”  In other words, in order for a child to learn to manage his emotions, he must first have a well regulated adult presence in his life.  Our brains have what are called, “mirror neurons.”  They function sort of like a blue tooth connection between our brains, allowing us to read the non-verbal cues of another person.  Through body language, facial expressions and gesture, we can read the intentions and emotional state of another person even without any words being spoken.  Through this invisible connection, children actually “download” our emotional state.

Remaining calm in the face of conflict is the first step in helping our children successfully manage their emotional states but this is obviously more easily said than done.  A parent cannot give a child something they don’t have.  A dysregulated parent will most likely result in a dysregulated child.

There are several important things that parents can do to help themselves manage their strong emotions:

  1. Sleep.  Lack of sleep is perhaps the biggest enemy of good parenting.  When we are tired and sleep deprived it is difficult to mange our unruly feelings appropriately.
  2. Exercise.  Getting aerobic exercise on a regular bases can help to keep the nervous system in top running condition.
  3. Relaxed pace.  Children were never made to be hurried.  When we hurry children we set them up for failure and dysregulation.
  4. Deep breathing.  When adults feel themselves becoming agitated or otherwise dysregulated, try deep breathing.
  5. Relationships.  Parents need satisfying relationshjps outside of the home.  Take time to enjoy time with friends.
  6. Rhythmic activity.  When you feel yourself becoming dysregualted and agitated, do some kind of rhythmic activity.  It may be rocking in a rocking chair, swinging, bouncing a basketball.

Remember, when your child starts to melt down, that is your signal to do a self check and be aware of your own emotional state.  Take a deep breath, count to three and give your child your full presence.  The calming presence of a more organized “other” is sometimes all a child needs to get back into a state of calm.

But what do you do when your full presence is not enough?   Stay tuned for more.