Self-regulation is making quite a splash in the academic and child development worlds. Maybe you’ve seen your child practicing a mindfulness activity from school involving squeezing imaginary oranges in their hands while they take deep breaths. Or maybe you are familiar with the regulation zones: red, green, blue (and for some yellow). Or perhaps this concept is entirely new, and you are asking yourself “What is self-regulation and what does it have to do with my kid??” In this article, I am going to answer the most common questions about regulation. In a follow-up post, I will share five ways to promote emotional balance and regulation in your family.
What is regulation?
Typically, when regulation is discussed, it is in reference to self-regulation or the process of managing emotions, stimuli, and behaviors in accordance with the situation at hand. It often involves being able to calm down when upset, manage difficult emotions and adjust to new situations. We could probably agree that this is a positive skill for any child or adult to have in their toolbox! Let’s explore how self-regulation develops.
Regulation is a skill that is developed across the lifespan. In the beginning, a child is completely reliant upon his caregivers to do the regulating (soothing a crying baby, changing a diaper, satiating a hungry baby, rocking a sleepy infant). As the child grows, the child begins to join the parent in this process, using more words to communicate what they need and taking steps to meet those needs. The child and parent continue this collaborative effort throughout most of childhood so that, when they leave home, they are equipped to do this on their own.
How can we help kids regulate?
One way to teach children about regulation is with the example of an engine. (www.alertprogram.com)
You can take a piece of paper or a paper plate and draw three zones: blue (too low), green (just right) and red (too high).
When a child is regulated, it means that they are in a state of emotional balance. They are alert, present, engaged and able to learn and interact with others. Emotional balance is referred to as the “green zone” or Goldilocks and the Three Bears’ “just right.”
When a child is dysregulated, it means that they are in an unbalanced state. They are having a difficult time managing their emotions and behaviors. On the one hand, they may be in the “red zone” with lots of extra gas in the tank. The unbalanced state may look like: frustration, angry outbursts, anxious breakdowns, or over-the-top silliness or excitement. On the other hand, they may be in the “blue zone” with not enough gas in the tank. Kids may present as being tired, bored, sad, withdrawn, and disengaged.
You might create a habit of doing “engine checks” at various points throughout the day to promote self-awareness about regulation. You can lead by saying, “Wow, my engine is in the blue zone. It’s time for me to get a snack before we head outside and play some more.” Or if you notice that your child is struggling with frustration in the red zone, you might say, “Hey buddy, let’s take a break and run around outside for a few minutes before we finish the rest of your homework.”
As children grow, the goal is that they could learn to reflect and identify how their engine is running, so that they can take steps toward getting certain needs met. Typical ways to respond when children are in the blue zone are supporting them with a snack, rest, nap or a safe space to talk about what is bothering them. Some regulating strategies for the red zone, include: getting the body moving, giving a child a fidget to absorb some anxious energy, or helping them take deep, calming breaths.
The goal is not that kids would never get upset or angry. The goal is that they could realize when they are dysregulated and then take steps to move them back toward the green zone and regulation.
Why is regulation so important?
It is when children are regulated and in the green zone that they have the deepest capacity to play, explore, grow and connect with others. It is where their “civilized behavior” emerges from.
When children do not have consistent experiences of regulation, their emotions and behaviors spiral out of control. Often this leads to adversarial relationships between parent and kids, with both feeling like they can’t get it right.
Kids depend on the adults in their world to help them regulate. Which means that parents can take the lead in promoting a regulating environment in their home, in addition to modeling regulation for their kids.
And, if you’d like some help promoting an atmosphere of regulation for your family, call me today and set up an appointment. Also, stay tuned for part II of this series to learn five ways to promote regulation in your family.
Child & Family Therapist | MA
I work with parents and children to build bridges and lasting connections so that your family can continue to grow, play and explore together.
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