Kids are often blamed for being emotionally dysregulated and partly for good reason. While children's brains are developing they physically can't manage big emotions. But so often children are singled out for having emotional melt-downs when parents are completely losing control of their own emotions too. It's easy to blame the child as we as parents can feel justified in losing control because kids can be so frustrating. Lets face it, nobody can push your buttons like your child. The problem is, if we lose control of our emotions when our kids are out of control, then we set up a culture of dysregulation. Emotions feed off emotions, so if we are going to bring calm we need to learn to regulate ourselves.
I am in no way trying to make parents feel guilty. We all get to our wits end and say and do things that we wished we hadn't. But recognising emotions and managing them well is not just a job for children. It is our responsibility as adults to recognise when we are feeling like we are no longer calm and do what we need to to stay in control. It is also our responsibility to teach our children how to do this. If we are all taking responsibility for our own emotions and openly using strategies to calm, we will create a home where emotions are acknowledged and managed, creating a self-regulated family.
Self-regulation is being able to recognise how you are feeling and remain in control of your emotions and behaviours. When you think about it that is a pretty big ask. It is understandable that it is a skill that needs to be learnt and not something that will necessarily come easily. The key to teaching our kids to manage their emotions is to create an environment where the family understand that emotions can be overwhelming, that we need to practice trying to manage them and sometimes we ALL make mistakes. When we do this, no one person is singled out as the "bad" one, we are all trying together.
As a family, feelings should be spoken about openly and how they impact you. You can say, "I'm really tired at the moment so I'm finding it harder to be calm". Talk about how your body feels and what you can do to help you remain calm. Ask your child what they would do. When your child is getting frustrated link their body with the emotion, such as "your muscles look really tight, are your feeling frustrated"? You can talk about what you do when you are frustrated and practice together, breathing exercises are a great way to do this (look at previous blogs on fun relaxations).
Practical Tips for Family Self-Regulation
The first step to self-regulations is to recognise how you are feeling. Have you ever noticed that you are snapping at people but when you stop and think about it you realised that you are worried about something else that that is making your tolerance low? If we are going to know how to manage our emotions we need to know what our emotions are. To simplify this we can make a visual meter for each person in the family. By doing this we are helping kids to recognise their own feelings but also understand that others have emotions that they struggle with too.
There are lots of visuals you can use for recognising emotions. I have written before about an "anger ladder" or "emotion thermometer". However, to make it simple, you can use a meter to show low, calm and high emotions. It is helpful to have a meter for everyone in the family so it is easy to talk about how everyone is feeling. You can use a paper plate or just paper and then cut out an arrow and join it with a split pin so that it can move. Colour code the low, calm and high emotions. In this example I have used blue, green and red but you can use any colours you like. Make sure that your child know what the colours represent.
Low emotions (blue): low emotions could be when you feel tired, lonely, sad or worried. It helps to talk about what your body may feel like with these emotions. You might feel heavy, like you have no energy or like you can't do anything.
Calm emotions (green): This could be happy, content or relaxed. Your body usually feels good, muscles aren't tight and you are ready to do things.
High emotion (red): this could mean that you are really angry or frustrated and you feel like you want to scream or punch something. It might mean that you are "hyper" and full of energy, like you can't sit still. It's important to recognise that if we are hungry we also might feel "red" as our tolerance is really low and we become "snappy".
Have everyone in the family come up with ideas that will help them calm. This will be different for everyone. For mum it might be taking a minute to sit and have a cup of coffee, this is not going to work for your child. Talk about when they might need a hug or when jumping on the trampoline will help. I do suggest that everyone has some controlled breathing and relaxation exercises on their list as this is proven to help us calm regardless of age and should be practiced regularly.
Put the meters in clear view and have everyone check in throughout the day. You could start by saying how you feel such as "I am red at the moment because I feel frustrated when I have to keep asking for school bags to be put away". Or you could help your child recognise their feeling, "you look like you are red at the moment because you can't get the game to work, maybe you could jump on the trampoline for a little while".
One important thing to remember is that you should never shame your child or blame them for your emotion. Don't get angry at them for being red, or say that they made you red. We are all responsible for our own emotions. The goal is to help our kids become aware of their body and emotions so that they can learn coping skills to get back to a calm state.
Spot the emotion game
It can be fun to "people watch" when you are out and try and work out people's emotions. Obviously you don't want kids to stare but if you see a child crying in the supermarket you could talk about what you think they are feeling. Ask what they would do if they felt like that. This helps build recognition of emotions, understanding of emotions in others which is the start of empathy and it also helps children to problem solve how they would manage their emotions. This doesn't have to be in real life, this could be when watching movies and reading books too.
Self-Regulation is not something that comes easily and it really is something that everyone, including adults need to practice. If we are able to adopt and open attitude to emotions and an understanding that we all need to work to remain calm, then we will be setting a culture in our family that will foster the ability to regulate.