Monday, June 12, 2023

Self Regulation Tips for Children and Teens


These days, it seems that everyone knows how important self-regulation is for children, teens AND adults. If your kiddo happens to be highly sensitive, too, these skills are especially important.

The part of the brain that is in charge of this emotional regulation process is called the pre-frontal cortex. This is the section of the brain we use when we need to make decisions, to think about consequences, to problem solve, AND to learn how to manage our big feelings. The problem is, the pre-frontal cortex is not fully developed in females until their mid 20s and in males until their 30s! Given this, it’s fundamental to have realistic expectations about how well our kids are truly able to manage their emotions and behaviors. As parents, this is where we come in. Our job is to help train our kiddo’s brains to work on building that self regulation capacity.

That being said, there are a multitude of strategies that we can use with our littlest kiddos through our oldest teens to start training their brains early and often! 

Here are a few we recommend: 

Pause: Start with yourself. If you’re in an emotionally heated moment with your child or teen, you need to bring on the calm. Taking a parent pause allows you to respond to your kiddo’s needs instead of reacting to their emotions. When we do this, it also helps teach our kids how to pause and gain some control over their feelings and behaviors. These “pauses” can, and should, also happen when kids are in a good emotional state. Offering kids a moment to take a pause in their day to day lives, which are often filled to the brim with activities, is an excellent way to help their brain work on self regulation skills. When children and teens can practice regulating their emotions in calm states, they develop an automatic capacity to use these skills in a state of upset. This is what we want! While what you do in these “pauses” depends on the child’s age/temperament/etc., some ideas for these small moments are things like take 10 deep breaths, talk about the funniest thing that happened today, closely observe your surroundings and name things you see (color/size/first letter of the object), hear, and smell, describe how your body feels, etc. 

Connect: Take every opportunity you can find to connect with your child or teen. Little moments of game playing, joking around, sharing stories or making time for special outings or fun days together helps kids feel important and shows that you’re interested in them. This kind of connection contributes to healthy self-esteem, which makes handling feelings easier for kids.

Recognize and Measure Emotions: In order to be better self-regulators, children and teens must first recognize the feelings they are having and identify the intensity of each emotion in each specific situation. For little ones, it can be helpful to have a visual aid (like a thermometer or stop light) to begin to work on this. 

Cool Off: Exposure to cold can send a “shock” to our system, causing our nervous system to do a reset. Offer a cold glass of water or frozen fruit or encourage them to wash their face with cold water, etc. if they are feeling emotionally over-heated.

Body Check: Keeping one’s body relaxed is a key element of emotional regulation. One exercise that can help children and teens learn how to relax their muscles and reduce their heart rate is by asking them to go body part by body part tensing up and then releasing all the tension (clench your fists as hard as you can then release, now your shoulders, now your feet, etc.). The goal is for this skill to become automatic when they are stressed out.

Get Moving: A lot of the kids who struggle with self regulation have a serious lack of physical activity in their day. Whether it be a 30 second dance party, some yoga poses, playing catch, going for a walk or any other movement based break, children and teens usually tend to feel refreshed afterwards, and they can use this on their own in moments of feeling stressed.

You get the idea… work on ways to bring calm and peace to your child or teen’s brain and body when they are in a good emotional space, and practice calming when they are not, so you can strengthen their pre-frontal cortex and help them develop their emotional and behavioral regulatory skills starting now.