My 3-year-old daughter is a “spirited” child. She came into the world almost a month early, and she’s been nonstop ever since. Her personality is vibrant, with very high highs and very low lows. Although I don’t have to wonder where she gets it (ahem), I truly admire her for being able to fully express how she is feeling from moment to moment. I never have to worry about her hiding her feelings from me; actually, it’s quite the opposite.
With such a big personality, it’s important for my daughter to learn self-regulation. As parents, my husband and I work hard to make her feel safe to express her feelings freely and in our home, though it’s not always easy to support her in managing her emotions and working through them. I believe that when a kid is having big feelings, they are trying to communicate that something isn’t right. It’s our responsibility to honor them by listening and supporting them the best that we can.
What is Self-Regulation?
Self-regulation is all about managing emotions, behavior, and body movement in the face of challenge. The ability to self-regulate looks different for a three year old compared to a preteen, and it’s not an easy process at any age. For young children, it involves things like:
- Keeping track of changes in the environment
- Assessing how one is feeling
- Handling all of the information that comes from your five senses (sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch)
- Focusing and paying attention while doing the above
My daughter has some sensory differences, which affect her ability to self-regulate. Essentially, her nervous system gets overloaded from taking in the world. When this happens, she gets very anxious and might start crying uncontrollably, or her anxiety might be misinterpreted as anger. Sometimes we realize this after it’s too late, but we’d much rather prevent a sensory overload from happening in the first place. By putting structures in place in your home it’s possible to support all children in regulating their emotions.
Ways to Teach Self-Regulation
Here are some teacher tricks to get you started:
Use visual mini-schedules. I create these mini schedules to help my daughter self-regulate during transitions or when she’s super excited about something. I know when she needs one because she’ll ask me “When are we _____?” a bazillion times. Having something concrete and visual like this eases her anxiety and allows her to focus on just one chunk of the day. All you need is a scrap piece of paper, coloring materials, and fun stickers to get your kid excited!
Prepare for the unexpected. I remember so vividly my mother telling me what was going to happen ahead of time. As a special education teacher, she realized early on that transitions were super difficult for me, and when changes happened, I’d go into meltdown mode. I’ve started using her ideas with my three-year-old. Here’s a couple ways you can prepare:
- Set expectations in a conversation. If we are heading to a friend’s house or a restaurant, we talk about what she might expect before we get there. For example, I might say, “We are going to Lizett’s house. I see you want to bring your favorite toy. Remember that if we bring your toy into her house, you will have to share. If you’d rather not share, we can leave your toy at home or in the car.”
- Wait to discuss plans. Whether you’ve got toddlers, littles, or older kids who struggle with change, it’s a good idea to hold off sharing tomorrow’s plans until you’re sure they’re happening. I learned this strategy the hard way after telling my daughter that we were going to visit her favorite neighbor’s house tomorrow, only to have a last-minute cancellation.
- Create a basket of activities. This is useful in many situations: when plans change, or my daughter is overwhelmed with too many options, or a babysitter calls to let me know my kid wants to roll down the stairs for fun, it helps to have a collection of agreed-upon activities for her to choose from. Sketch a bunch of different activities your child enjoys like playing with dough, drawing, climbing, swinging, playing with her dolls, dress-up, drawing with chalk outside, or running an obstacle course. Next, put the activities in a basket. This is a great way to help your child visualize the activities that are okay to play with friends, babysitters, and family members.
Advocate for your child. We recently went to a farm to check out pumpkins and enjoy fall activities outdoors. Upon arrival, we were told that our daughter had to wear a wristband to enjoy the rides. Well, she hates the feeling of things on her wrist, especially in the hot, humid weather we have here in Austin, TX. So I was her advocate. I explained that she has sensory differences and we worked out having her wear the band in her hair instead.
Here’s a few ways you can be an advocate:
- Set boundaries. If I had given in and made my daughter put the wristband on, she would have had some really big feelings and we may have had to leave the farm. When an adult–whether it’s a classroom teacher, family member, or neighbor–expects something of your child that you know is triggering, it’s your job to speak up or teach your child to speak up for themselves. Next, work together to figure out a solution or plan of action that works for your child.
- Know your child’s triggers. Does your child get overwhelmed at noisy restaurants? What about when it’s super-hot outside? Is it too hard for your child to make a trip to Target without getting a toy? It’s so important to know when our children can’t handle a situation and to either avoid that situation or teach them coping strategies to deal with their feelings in a healthy way. Which leads us to…
Teach your child coping strategies. If we teach our kids coping strategies when they are little, self-regulation will become second-nature to them as they get older. Here’s a few of my favorites:
- Use calming methods. Every child is different, so it’s best to teach your child multiple strategies and see what works best. My daughter does well with deep belly breaths, singing through transitions, and using a calming jar. Some other ideas include using weighted blankets, creating a peace corner in your house or child’s room, or playing quiet music. It’s important to talk about when and why we use calming strategies, and share about activities that adults use to calm down too, such as taking a warm bath with lavender.
- Discuss big feelings. When we give our children the words to express how they are feeling, we can support them when they are feeling overwhelmed, uncomfortable, or nervous. One idea is to provide a sentence frame such as, “When I’m _______ I can _______.” and provide emotion words (e.g., “sad,” “angry,” “happy,” “overwhelmed,” “nervous,” etc.) and a list of strategies (“Go in my swing,” “Go for a jog,’ “Take a deep breath,” etc.) for your child to refer to. You can also support your child by asking questions like:
- “How are you feeling right now?”
- “How does your body feel?”
- “Can you think about what is making you feel upset?”
- “How can I support you?”
Self-regulation can be a challenge for young children, especially those with big feelings. These strategies will help your child learn how to better self-regulate, which leads to greater resilience. We can’t make life easy for our kids, but we can give them the tools they need to support them in responding to difficult situations in healthy ways.
Resources to Help You Support Your Child:
- Sensory Processing Issues Explained
- Trouble With Self-Regulation: What You Need to Know
- Developing Coping Skills: 5 Ways to Help Kids Who Struggle With Self-Control
By April Brown (M.Ed), writer and education consultant based in Austin, TX.