“Don’t worry, he’ll grow out of it,” says the stranger at the supermarket as your 3-year-old writhes on the floor screaming.
Even if these words are less-than-reassuring in the moment, trust that the stranger is right. Your kid will eventually move on from those eardrum-rattling tantrums that seem like they’ll never end. What they won’t completely grow out of, though, is experiencing BIG emotions and not always knowing how to control them. And that’s okay.
Too often, we treat our children—and ourselves—like robots that will be able to solve all of life’s problems as soon as they download the right software. This chase for perfection is futile and counterproductive. When it comes to emotional regulation, the most we can ask for from our children is that they take each challenging experience as an opportunity to practice. While they will “fail” a good amount of the time, adopting this growth mindset creates room for lifelong learning and improvement.
In the mental health field, which I’ve been working in for more than 20 years, we don’t talk enough about the concept of “automaticity,” which refers to behavioral responses that occur without deliberate thought. This idea is important in the context of self-regulation because automaticity can come with practice, and we tend to respond without thinking when we’re emotionally overwhelmed. When kids can practice self-regulation in a low-stakes environment (e.g., while playing board or video games or learning a new skill such as riding a bike), they have an easier time developing the skills they need to stay cool in situations where it really matters. The challenge for parents is to create an environment that allows their kids to make mistakes and grow.
We put kids in an impossible situation when they’re in the midst of a meltdown and we ask them to “calm down.” Remember that the right side of the brain is the emotional side. Even if a child is aware of calming strategies such as deep breathing, using those strategies requires activating the left brain. When deep breathing is an automatic response to frustration or agitation, kids don’t have to perform the herculean cognitive task of consciously switching from their emotional right brain to their rational left brain.
How do we help our kids develop automaticity, then? The first thing you have to do is remind yourself that you don’t have to be the perfect parent. The way we respond to our kids’ emotional outbursts often has less to do with their behavior than our own stuff—harsh criticism we received as children, trauma we’re sorting through, unreachable standards we set for ourselves. This kind of baggage can lead to wanting to be the perfect parent and projecting similar expectations onto our children. So, when your child throws a tantrum on the playground, you subconsciously worry that their behavior reflects poorly on you and you start to lose your temper. When your kid is overwhelmed and you get overwhelmed, too, what are the odds they’re going to reach into their cognitive toolkit and remember how to self-soothe?
So, try to let go of the idea that progress with emotional regulation is a straight, frictionless line. I’m not saying it’s easy. You may have to do some practicing yourself. When you find yourself getting annoyed in traffic or have a sudden urge to smash the office printer, take a deep breath and picture your favorite vacation destination. Or imagine you’re cuddling with your dog. Then, go home and teach your kid the same trick. Encourage them to try it the next time a classmate does something to upset them or they get scared at the doctor’s office. What you’re doing is helping them build new neural pathways that will promote healthier responses to difficult emotions. When they get a self-regulation “win,” celebrate! When their emotions get the best of them, tell them that it’s okay. After all, it’s just practice.