Keeping Calm: Mastering the Art of Self-Regulation in 3 Simple Steps

“He has difficulties with self-regulation." What does that mean?

I’ve been thinking a lot about self-regulation. It is a term I see more and more on IEPs, psychology reports, and in education forums. What is self-regulation and why is it so important?

Dr. Stuart Shanker, in his book Self Reg (2016), cites that the term “self-regulation” is used in hundreds of different ways. He describes self regulation as the “brain-body responses to stress.” In other words, self-regulation is the ability to remain calm when experiencing stress.Stress. Stresses. Stressors. Stressors take many shapes and forms. A stressor might be…

  • when the lights are too bright, or when one bulb flickers every now and then in the corner of the room
  • when you are putting your child on the school bus for the first time
  • when you are getting on the school bus for the first time
  • when you are not sure if there is enough money in the account for a large grocery bill
  • when you can’t stop thinking about an itchy tag on your skin
  • when you are entering a playground with fast-moving children yet unsure how to join
  • or when you’ve experienced a traumatic event like Hurricane Harvey (read about how to help and talk to your children after the hurricane here)

We all have stressors. They range from emotional to physical. But how do we deal with these stressors? It is in these moments of stress that we have the opportunity to learn to remain calm and focused; to remain self regulated and move forward. How can we help our children to learn this important skill?

Three “Simple” Steps to Self-Regulation

As you know, being a parent can be stressful. Add to that stress a child that is struggling with self-regulation in the form of tantrums, meltdowns, or aggressive behaviors, and then try to keep your calm. YIKES!This does not sound simple, and it is not. The following three steps help guide me in my self-regulation journey. I hope you find them useful.

Step 1. What Does Your Child Need to be Their Calm Self?

We all have likes and dislikes. Some babies crave car rides to bring them sleep while others scream endlessly when buckled into the car seat. As we grow and have more experiences, we begin to better identify what helps us find calm. Some of these are universal (we all need to eat and sleep) and some are unique for each of us (some of us love touch or bear hugs and some of us do not).Question to ask yourself: Can you list 5 things that help your child to find calm?

Step 2. What Do You Need to be Your Calm Self? 

I know if I don’t sleep enough, if I don’t exercise, or if I’m distracted emotionally, I am more likely to reach my tipping point sooner. Knowing these things about myself helps me to recognize why I may be feeling or behaving in a certain way. It also helps me to be as regulated as possible by building the things I need into my everyday.When I face stress, as we all do, I seek a walk outside, a minute in my room with the door closed, a sit on my kitchen floor, a text exchange, or conversation with a friend—a hug, time to write, and on and on. These lists will look different for all of us. Read about what how another parent keeps calm here.Question to ask yourself: What’s on your list? What do you need to regulate yourself?

Step 3. How Can I Help My Child Self-Regulate?

Trying to understanding my child’s experience helps me to better understand his behavior. This makes me more likely to express empathy and support instead of frustration and confusion. In other words, this helps me to be more regulated.When I am calm, I can help regulate my son. I can support him by offering what I know he needs to feel calm (see Step 1 above). When my son experiences this feeling of regulation over and over again, he begins to understand what it means to regulate on his own; he begins to understand self-regulation.Questions to ask yourself:

  • Is he physically comfortable? (basic needs such as diet, sleep, exercise, or a need to go to the bathroom)
  • Is he feeling emotions that he can’t express? (Is his lashing out because he’s nervous about a new classroom?)
  • Is he facing a challenge that isn’t obvious? (physical or cognitive)

Simple? Not exactly.Worth it? Absolutely. *Stuart Shanker and his team have developed useful Self Reg® tools for parents, found here.