All of last week, I was driving home the point that our children’s tricky behaviours are almost always underpinned by much more complex brain processes. Understanding why our children may behave or react in a certain way, helps us to reframe what we see and respond more thoughtfully, with empathy and in a way that promotes our children’s overall growth and well-being.
Today I want to share with you a visual that I am hoping will help you to conceptualise how best to support behaviour regulation for your kids. Families often, sometimes unintentionally/unknowingly, get into patterns of rewards and consequences as a way of managing behaviours. I am hoping that this table will help you think about supporting your child’s behaviour regulation in ways other than relying heavily on rewards and consequences.
I will use Lily’s anxiety with meeting strangers (people I know) for the first time. Lily’s initial response when she meets people she doesn’t know, is to be really rude. She lets them know, in no uncertain terms, that she ‘doesn’t want them to be there’. Lily is very small in stature and (if I say so myself), very cute…so people often find it amusing when she does this as she is so small, yet so assertive. So, they won’t necessarily take her seriously, until she really amps up the ‘rudeness’. This is often a trigger for me. No one likes their child being rude to others, and I still sometimes get caught in the fear of it reflecting badly on me as a parent, or worrying that people think I don’t teach her proper manners.
How did I prepare my child to respond?
How did I change the environment or my expectations in a way that would help my child be successful?
How did I support regulation (slowing down, pacing, tone of voice, calm reaction, validating feelings)?
What coping strategies were used or could have been used (e.g., breathing, movement, talking, break, collaborative problem solving)?
How could I guide my child in making repairs?
What did I spotlight in the process? (any positive outcomes to the messy situation?)
Lily’s overwhelm is rooted in the anxiety because of the uncertainty and unpredictability of meeting new people. It is a dynamic situation, which she can’t control. She struggles to self-regulate – can’t access her PFC in the moment.
I prime her by making more things certain. I show photos of who is coming to visit and tell her stories about them, our history together, if they have kids, I tell her about them. I draw parallels of their lives and ours – stories help her process and move her into thinking brain as opposed to uncertain = danger.
I also have something ready for her to occupy herself with and make sure she knows that she doesn’t have to do the initial ‘greeting’ and come and greet when she is ready. Giving her something to do, takes the pressure of the initial meeting.
I prepare visitors for the worst, and ask them to give her space – to not look at her directly to begin with, to not try to talk or entertain her, and to be patient for her to warm up.
At first I wanted her to ‘greet people’ because that is the ‘right thing to do’. I adjusted that expectation – I want her to greet from a regulated place where she is interested and engaged…
not a place of fear that will feed the anxiety around meeting new people.
Whereas before, I would know this situation was coming when someone was visiting and just ‘powered through’, I now slow down to prepare and prime. If Lily insists on being present, I get down next to her, hold her, validate her feeling of ‘uncertainty’, and talk to my guest about Lily:
“she is the kindest funniest person you will ever meet, but she doesn’t always like to show that side right away. Meeting new people can be hard – she needs time”.
I stay calm and comforting
I Include Lily in thinking about things she may need to do to warm up, calm down, or get comfortable around new people. It may be a calming colouring activity for the first few minutes while people are there. It may going in her swing, or it may be staying close to me. When we talk about these things beforehand, she often doesn’t need any of them. Having options and knowing she isn’t being forced into doing things she isn’t comfortable with really goes a long way in her feeling accepted and regulated.
I often reflect back to Lily how it may feel for others when she says rude things like: “I don’t like you!” Or “I hate you.”
I do this when she is more calm. I may do this when I go make tea or the person goes to washroom or whatever. I then ‘wonder’ what we can do to help them know that she was having a hard time when she said those things and didn’t mean them. Lily will often draw the person a picture, or give them ‘a present’ (like a leaf ☺) as an attempt to make amends.
No amends is made unless Lily volunteers to and I don’t guilt trip her. I simply state thoughts as an invitation to consider a different viewpoint and what she does with that is up to her.
I spotlight the ‘problem’ as it is happening:
‘you are having a hard time meeting new people’; ‘staying kind is hard when you’re having a hard time.’
‘you’re feeling upset about having to get used to a new person in the home’.
‘I wonder what you can do to feel better about this’; ‘we talked before about some things you could do to help you feel better?’. I want her to notice her feelings in relation to the problem, and access her strategies on her own, with my support if necessary….
‘I can’t quite remember – was it colouring?’.
Or ‘When I get really overwhelmed I like to be by myself and colour/sit in my swing/sing frozen songs.’
Priming can be used to prepare a child prior to an activity or outing what they can do if they feel overwhelmed. I had a parent share yesterday that he uses priming to let his son know that if he feels overwhelmed in the middle of the soccer game or social gathering, that he can come sit next to dad for a few minutes. This is so soothing to his son, knowing that he doesn’t have to ‘push through’.
Scaffolding can be a very useful tool. For example, if a child is expected to sit in an extracurricular class after school, strategies such as giving him/her a book to read if he gets bored prevents the stress to build so fast. You scaffold a situation to ensure you give just enough support so that your child is empowered but also set up to succeed..
Coregulation is a key process by which a parent becomes attuned with a child. It requires becoming aware of your pacing, ability to slow down your reactions, lower your tone of voice, validate feelings. You join your child and become a team, get alongid each other and move forward together.
Your child may be at a point in which they have developed self-regulation strategies. For example, some of my clients can express their feelings, can ask for a "cool down" break, can negotiate collaboratively (using a collaborative problem solving approach), or use movement to calm themselves down. Guiding techniques can be used to have the child engage in these self-regulatory strategies. Your child may not be able to do this independently – stay close to him and spotlight the moment when they start getting frustrated. Suggest YOUR OWN problem-solving strategy to become regulated. ‘Wonder’ what they may find helpful. Engage in it with them, playfully and in a fun way – it is not a punishment. Redirecting with humour is powerful! Trying to suggest strategies can be futile when the situation has escalated too much and the child’s levels of stress have become unbearable. It is therefore so important to know your child’s pathway to overwhelm, the change in the body, tone, voice, posture, colouring – are all clues to what type of support is needed.
Repair of breakdowns, is another area in which parents can make lemonade out of lemons. You can use a "messy" situation to guide your child in making a repair/amends. For example, rather than send a child to their room for kicking, try having him bring an ice pack and teach empathy. Or have a child use his allowance to pay for an item that he broke. There are multiple ways that a child can be guided to make repairs. Wait for calm before you do this – we can’t teach empathy in the throws of a meltdown
Spotlighting: the important moment in which the child was able to slow down, take a breath or break, or make a repair should be spotlighted. Let the child know what they did in the moment that was "important" as a dynamic tool that will help them succeed in life's messy situations. Spotlighting the problem is key as well because getting to a place of solving the problem collaboratively, is way more impactful than only celebrating the resolve.
I hope this is helpful in helping families think about how they can respond when these challenging times occur.
Take a moment to think of a difficult situation where your child behaved in a way that you struggled with. Go through the table and see how you handled the situation in all of those areas. What might you do differently next time?
Pony Boy/Girl: You can sing a variety of songs with this one – I like ‘The Grand old Duke of York’, but know some use ‘Pony Boy’ or ‘Pony Girl’ – youtube Bruce Spingsteen’s version.
How the game works – parent sits on low couch or chair with child on the knees. Child can ask for fast or slow and then as you start singing, start bouncing – bringing in lots of trembling, higher and lower bounces, pausing, lower child between the knees and almost to the ground, being careful not to drop him/her! Do whatever you need to increase the excitement of the game. Variation, along with ample opportunity for hugs and experience sharing is key.
Get up right now and do something kind for yourself.