Is your child calm, focussed and learning? Children are exposed to all sorts of stimulation in their environment, both positive and challenging. How your child deals with their environment depends on your child's capacity to self-regulate. Stimulation can come in all shapes and sizes that stir a different responses in a child's thinking, feeling and body. For example, one child might find loud music energising, another might find it overwhelming. Even though a child may be raised in a similar setting as a sibling; they may well have differing abilities to understand and manage strong emotions and impulses.
Protecting children from excessive stress and helping them to manage strong emotions provides a foundation for healthy development and learning. Check out this short video by Dr Jack Shonkoff.
Self regulation and science. There was a classic experiment conducted in the 80's where a researcher advised a 4 year-old that they could take one marshmallow, but had to wait until the researcher re-entered the room to have second one. The 30% of the children who were able to use self-control and wait, had higher academic scores and lower antisocial behaviour and drug-use later in life (Mischel et al 1989). This was a small insight into impulse control and its long term benefits.
Is it nature or nurture? Your child's ability to self regulate depends largely on their ability to understand and manage their impulses and emotions. Although some of this ability is pre-determined by their genetic inheritance (IQ, EQ, temperament, body type), it can be significantly shaped by their experience. From pregnancy all the way through to adult life, our genetic make-up can be positively shaped and developed through exposure to supportive experiences. In fact, your child's genetics are influenced by your past experiences and those of your ancestors - check out the BBC documentary below on epigenetics - not a short video, it is 50mins long, but worth setting aside the time.
Am I too late? Whether your child is an unborn infant or school-age, there are many things you can do that will support your child to self-regulate. But first remember we cannot completely control our child's environment and neither should we want to. Cotton-wool-ing kids from all stressors inhibits learning. It is the manageable challenges in a safe environment that help our children practice their skills - promoting healthy growth, coping skills and resilience. There are some types of stress that are toxic - however many stresses experienced by a child who has supportive and loving carers are considered positive or tolerable stress. Check out the differences here.
What can a parent do?
Here are 4 starters based on the work of Dr Stuart Shanker:
1. PLAY It is the work your child does to make sense of their world. Its a safe place where they can practice facing challenges, express their emotions, and practice their language and social skills. Encourage it, make space and time for it, and support it.
2. WATCH what triggers your child to be under or over aroused. What patterns are you seeing? Sometimes we need to make a special effort to respond rather than react. Other times we need to respond rather than neglect. Provide the particular help your child needs at those times of needing to be stimulated, or needing to calm down.
3. MODEL Tune-in to your own arousal state. Talk with your child about how you feel and model for them the way you managing it. It wont be perfect, but have a go at managing your arousal state and your child will learn from your actions and spoken reflections.
4. EXERCISE Working the deep muscles is effective relief for children that are under or over aroused. Your child may not yet have the words or emotional maturity to articulate what is going on in their head and heart; however given support, they are pretty good at expressing it with their body! Many children have moments where they need to run their wriggles out, belly flop on the bed or adventure up a tree. Becoming attuned to way of being in our physical body, emotions and cognitive thinking and the flow between the three, are life-skills that many adults have not yet mastered, but if attuned early your child will have a strong head-start.
If you want to hear more on raising children with self-regulation, Dr Stuart Shanker (Canada's foremost child development specialist) is in town and offering public lectures.
If you are expecting your first child, our Expecting Masterclass is an ideal way to prepare for parenthood and the challenges of raising a child.
If you are having particular difficulty with managing your child's behaviour, consider the parent coaching support we can offer either by phone/skype or home visit in the Perth Metro area.