Most of us know a family that speaks a foreign language at home. Children in these families can switch seamlessly between the language they speak with their parents and the one they speak with their peers, teachers, and other adults. This facility with multiple languages benefits children in numerous ways, including in being able to navigate a multicultural world.
When I’m working with parents whose children struggle with emotional self-regulation, I try to frame self-regulation as a type of language that takes time and effort to learn and master. As with a foreign language, the key to helping children strengthen their self-regulation skills is to foster an immersive environment in which they can practice, make mistakes, and ultimately grow. To this end, I encourage families to practice self-regulation together.
Creating a family culture around emotional self-regulation accomplishes several goals. First, if everyone is practicing and playing together, then the “game” of acquiring better self-regulation skills is more fun. And who wants to be left out of a good time?
Second, if the whole family is practicing, then no child is singled out as the “bad” one. For many families, the simple fact that everyone is joining together to work on self-regulation can be comforting to the child who is always getting into trouble at school and is constantly on “timeout.” On some level, children like this understand that they are “different” from other children, but they should never feel like they are the only ones who need to improve their self-regulation.
A family that I’ve been working with for more than a year experienced their most significant transformations once they adopted “family practice.” When I first met Sara*, the mother, she described her typical day as one long meltdown: She had three young children and they would set each other off from breakfast until bedtime. At first, she placed the blame on her eldest son, who admittedly had the most difficulty in controlling his big emotions. Eventually, however, Sara realized that the entire family was contributing to the cycle of dysregulation.
“I just didn’t understand my children — I didn’t understand how I was playing a part in this,” she told me. “Your child can push your buttons like no one else.”
Sara began to encourage the entire family to talk about their frustrations and self-regulation. Soon each family member was acknowledging moments when they were agitated and how it felt in their body (“My heart rate feels really high.”). When they managed to calm themselves down, the whole family celebrated together. Sara now notes that other parents on the playground will sometimes tell her how lucky she is that her children are so well-behaved. In response, Sara will say, “It’s not luck. It’s taken blood, sweat, tears, and hard work to get to this point.”
When parents like Sara come to my office exasperated and desperate, I begin by suggesting the following steps for building a family culture around self-regulation:
1) Play together.
Whether it’s a good old-fashioned puzzle or multiplayer video game, all families can play and have fun together. I encourage families to find a way to make practicing emotional self-regulation skills into a game. When families gamify self-regulation, it’s a win-win: they are simultaneously playing and learning.
One game families can play is identifying people who are “in the red.” For example, at the supermarket a mom can discreetly point out a crying baby and say to her child, “I bet his heart rate is pretty high, don’t you think?” This encourages children to think about the times when they get worked up and what they can do to keep their emotions in check.
2) Practice together.
Let’s face it — we all have moments when challenging situations get the best of us. Recovering from small-scale frustrations, such as being in a long line at the DMV, forgetting an important item for work, or missing the alarm clock, are ideal, low-stakes training opportunities. Families can practice what it feels like to be agitated, anxious, or excited, and how to recover from frustration.
When things become difficult, model for your child how you don’t let disappointing outcomes overwhelm you. Over time, the self-regulation skills you and your family practice will become second nature.
3) Grow together.
I encourage families to embrace the language and self-reflection that support self-regulation by asking themselves these questions: What does it feel like to be emotionally overwhelmed? Where do you feel these difficult emotions in your body? How do you channel it? How does this make you feel better physically? And how does this make you feel better about yourself? Conversations about this inner experience help family members get to know themselves and each other better.
*names have been changed