Helping Kids to Self-Regulate

Getting kids out the door in the morning and into bed at night, getting them to eat what’s on their plates and brush their teeth afterwards, curbing whining and tantrums – all these things can feel like epic struggles for today’s parents. What are we doing wrong? Certified Parent Educator and award-winning journalist Katherine Reynolds Lewis spent five years studying the latest scientific research on children’s behavior for her recently published book, “The Good News about Bad Behavior: Why Kids Are Less Disciplined Than Ever – And What To Do About It.” The following article is adapted from a recent online book club with Lewis, organized by the Parent Encouragement Program in Kensington, Maryland.

Q: It feels like raising kids today is more difficult than it was in the past. What has changed?

A: Children’s ability to self-regulate is not what it used to be. It’s hard to prove why. We don’t have a time machine, but we can look at big societal changes that correlate with kids’ problems with self-regulation. For example, the way children play has changed. They used to have more outdoor, unstructured play without the presence of adults. If they were having fun playing a game and wanted to stay in it, they were motivated to control their behavior and impulses. They learned cooperation. They learned abstract thinking – for example, mud could become a pie.

Kids today are supervised from the moment they’re born until they head off to college, from morning to night. They are always with someone whose job it is to keep them safe and free from conflict. They are no longer permitted to take small, everyday risks – to tumble and hurt a knee. They have little experience resolving conflict with buddies through trial and error because there is always a parent or teacher to sort out the dispute. Children need the rough and tumble play in order to learn how to get along with others. This applies to sibling rivalry, too.

Engaging in roughhousing and physical play with someone they trust can be an inoculation against fear. Early risks and tumbles really help kids face their fears in small doses. Let them come to you for comfort when they need reassurance in new situations. They’ll be ready to move on if we wait till they’re ready and avoid pushing them.

Q: Why is it so hard to get kids to cooperate – for example, to get out the door in the morning or to go to sleep at night?

For kids to learn self-control, parents must stop trying to control them. Whenever we remind, nag and boss them, kids get distracted from the task at hand and they kind of enjoy the back and forth with us. The key is to keep children in charge of themselves. One of the most effective techniques is to brainstorm – at another time – about what has to happen to get out the door in the morning or to bed at night, and then hand over the responsibility to them. You could work with them to make a chart of the steps involved, with pictures that they color or photographs of them carrying out each task. And then you only have to point to the chart without a lot of discussion.

Q: What about using rewards to motivate kids?

Rewards can sometimes work in the short term, but over time they have the counterproductive effect of discouraging the behavior you are trying to create because they signal that this is something you wouldn’t do unless you were rewarded. Research shows that people rate a new yogurt drink as less enjoyable if they are given a reward for drinking it. Instead, we need to do what we can to help kids discover the intrinsic joy and pleasure of the activity itself.

Q: What can parents do to help kids regulate their moods and behavior?

Through the course of our parenting journey, we have to be broadening the circle of their independence and shrinking what we are in charge of. Rather than try to control them, we need to control our own response. Sometimes when we change that one thing, it changes the whole dynamic and takes away a lot of the problems we are experiencing. Our focus needs to be on building connection, communication and capability.

In terms of connection, we can help by being physically present. When we’re physically near our kids, when we touch them or give them bear hugs, it helps them regulate. Heartbeats and breathing start to synchronize when kids are near their parents. When children are having temper tantrums, they calm down when parents are close by. “Special Time” (child-directed play with one totally engaged parent) is the cure-all for many problems. There may be other things they are wrestling with and poor behavior is the symptom.

Communication improves when we state our messages in positive terms, using encouraging language and providing information kids can use. Sometimes it’s like we’re predicting doom for our kids when we say things like “If you run on a slippery sidewalk, you’ll slip and fall.” Instead, we can provide information in positive terms. “When you walk carefully on the slippery sidewalk, you’ll stay on your feet.” We have to manage our fears for them – otherwise we show that we have no faith in them. Instead of issuing orders, we can give kids opportunities to take charge of problem solving. For example, rather than “Pick up your backpack,” we can say “I see a backpack on the floor.” Or use humor to create a funny situation. Give your child a note from the backpack saying, “I’m tired of lying on floor, please hang me up.” Ask your child curiosity questions about things they are interested in or about how they handled a difficult situation. All these things will feed their sense of competence and worth, as well as build their critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

We can also build children’s sense of capability by giving them opportunities to contribute to the family. Most kids have a lot of homework, but no afterschool jobs or chores around the house to give them a sense that they are worth something beyond their achievements. Invite kids to help with tasks they are willing to do that are slightly above their skill level – such as digging in the dirt while gardening or cutting something in the kitchen with a sharp blade. Otherwise, it’s boring.

Q: What was the most surprising thing you learned in researching and writing the book?

I was pleasantly surprised by some of the research on the parent-child connection and how powerful that is. We have more influence than we realize as parents. It sometimes feels like we are powerless, but we can have a big impact. That’s good news!