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What Most Parents Don't Know About Self-Regulation

Picture this:

You’re at a red light. The light turns green. After a second passes, the driver in front of you hasn’t started to move. Do you a) honk and yell or b) take a breath a wait a few seconds? Let me guess: you’ve done both.

How you handle yourself in that moment depends on your self-regulation and your coping skills. How you act will also depend on what has happened in your day thus far and what kind of mood you are in. If you’ve had a tough day, feel behind schedule and already have stress building up inside, you would be more likely to honk in that moment. On the other hand, if you’ve had a relaxing, easygoing day, you would be more likely in that instance to give the driver ahead of you a few more seconds before giving him a friendly little tap on your horn.

What happens to us in our day significantly affects our regulation and our ability to cope. It’s really important for us to understand that this is the same for our children. We have to consider our child’s state of regulation when making decisions during the day that are going to affect him.

This is especially important when we are trying to work on our child’s developmental skills at home, whether it is his speech, language, feeding or motor skills. Say you are working on getting your child to form sentences. If he is already on the edge of disregulation, this may not be a good time to work on getting him to ask “Can I have a cookie please?”. You will be more successful in the long term, if you know when to lower your demands in order to help your child to maintain a state of regulation. This time, you may just let him slide by with saying “cookie please” and pointing. When your child has calmed down, then that would be a good time to work on his language goals.

In order for a child to be in an optimal learning zone, he must be regulated. That means that his emotional state is balanced. Think of it as a seesaw. You want the seesaw to be balanced (two kids about the same size on each side). What if there was a child on one side and an adult came over and sat on the other side? It is not going to be easy to get that seesaw back to center. This represents a child who has gone over the edge, for instance, a tantrum. It is much harder to get a child who is having a tantrum back to a regulated emotional state than a child who is whining a little bit.

The takeaway: If you notice that your child is on the edge of disregulation, remember that your goal in that moment is to get him back to center. Make sure your child is balanced before putting demands on him. And make sure that the demands aren’t too big of demands for him. You want to challenge him - this is an important part of learning- but you want to make sure that seesaw is tipping over just a little, you don’t want it to drop all the way to the ground.

Jessie Ginsburg, M.S., CCC-SLP is a speech-language pathologist and owner of Pediatric Therapy Playhouse, a multi-disciplinary clinic in Los Angeles.

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