Can kids learn to calm down and solve problems on their own?
The good news is: of course!
The bad news is: it takes a good long time.
When you and your family are in a long process like emotional self-regulation, it’s good to be able to see exactly how far you’ve come, and what to do next. Just remember: each stage is important. They’re not always pretty, but we can’t skip ahead. We can just take it step by step.
If you want to know more about helping children develop emotional self-regulation, there are more articles in this series to check out:
- How to Choose a Calm-Down Strategy That Works
- Emotional Self-Regulation for Kids: Where Do We Start?
Step 1: Basic Awareness and Support for Emotional Expression
When our children come into the world, they are completely dependent on us, for survival and for emotional regulation. They can only signal discomfort, and it’s up to us parents to figure out exactly what is wrong, and how to solve the problem.
This squirmy, uncomfortable phase reminds me of the “caterpillar” stage of a butterfly’s development. This little creature looks gnarly and strange, but it is very vulnerable.
Children start by learning from experience. They start to communicate wants and needs, but they don’t have much experience solving their own problems or staying calm.
When my first son was very little, we found that a pacifier and soft monkey toy would quickly soothe his cries, so we always kept one handy. Long drives in the car were challenging, because these precious items could fall out of his grasp, and without them, his grumbles and complaints would build into miserable howls.
As he grew older, he stopped using the pacifier and the monkey, but still needed help to cope with anger and sadness without smacking others or throwing objects. As parents, we listened for signs of distress and quickly jumped in to prevent escalation, for safety’s sake. We tracked his sleep patterns, kept diaries of his moods, and learned the meaning of each little grunt and cry. We swaddled, bounced, walked, and sang.
Parents do a lot of the work in these early stages, managing the situation and offering solutions.
Step 2: Building Habits and Strategies for Emotional Self-Regulation
As children gain experience and learn to name their emotions and sensations, they can start to make choices that help with self-regulation. They can ask for and accept help before the frustration builds to its peak.
This stage is similar to the “cocoon” or pupa stage of the butterfly, where the caterpillar transforms into the next stage of development.
Children in this stage still need assistance and time. They are not independent yet, but they are building the skills they will later rely on.
When children learn to switch their attention or ask for a break, they are giving themselves some much-needed protective space.
When teachers and parents invite children to have a “time in” and talk through frustrations, they are providing a supportive structure for the child.
Likewise, at my younger son’s daycare, some wise early childhood educators set up the classroom to give children more opportunities to self-regulate. In a corner by the window, they placed a white lacy canopy, and designated it ” the calm down spot.” When the little people in their classroom needed a break, they would often choose to walk over to the “calm-down spot.” By reminding the children of the opportunity to self-regulate, these teachers offered gentle support when children were ready to take this next step.
Step 3: Independent Emotional Self-Regulation, Fully Developed
As children gain experience, learn new strategies, and physically mature, they can manage their own emotions much more successfully, using flexible thinking and other cognitive strategies.
When my son learned to read, he started to use books as a way of coping with his big emotions. Instead of shouting at his brother or throwing toys around the room, he learned to walk away and pick up a book. He came up with this strategy all on his own, and it works for him. As he reads, he turns his attention away from the frustrating problem, and allows his body a chance to cool down.
Parents will continue to support as children face more challenging and complex problems, but at this stage, children can manage a range of problems independently. In fact, emotional self-regulation is a skill that adults continue to struggle with, so parents can help their children by modelling healthy coping skills, and being open with their children about what strategies they use to stay calm and deal with difficult emotions.
Key Take-Aways for Parents and Teachers
It’s frustrating when children need a lot of support in this area. In fact, parents and teachers who deal with explosive behaviours have to use their own toolkit of emotional self-regulation skills to be able to tolerate the stress that goes along with the yelling, screaming and throwing.
As children move from one stage to the next, progress happens very slowly. Sometimes progress is hard to see, and it rarely happens because of just one tool or strategy. Emotional self-regulation is a long and complex progress, but remember the caterpillar. As the caterpillar moves closer to the next stage, the changes are hard to see day by day, but the ultimate transformation is unmistakable.
Your child might still be in a stage of emotional development that requires a lot of support. Your support is part of the process. In fact, your child has already learned new skills and developed coping strategies for frustrating problems, but the slow pace of transformation makes them easy to miss. What everyday problems used to bother you? Do you remember the day that they stopped?
As you continue to support your child, take a moment to remember the “butterflies” (and make sure to share your wins in the Creative Connected Behaviour Support private Facebook Group.)