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How to handle stressful moments with kids – Self Reg Tips

We asked expert author Stuart Shanker for his Self-Reg tips for stressed kids who we know (and love) so we can put into practice some strategies to help them. There’s a lot of pressure on children now to succeed at school, to fit in there and on social media, in addition to dealing with day-to-day troubles (too much noise, being rushed etc). A big part of the problem is that children often struggle to articulate what is troubling them and either start to misbehave or else shut down and fail to communicate at all. Stuart Shanker argues that teaching children the art of self-regulation will transform their behaviour by helping them to identify, talk about and manage their emotions. As parents, we want to know how to do this for our (all too common) issues:

I think the hardest thing in our house is getting the oldest to get dressed. This normally consists of me asking at least 10 times before I end up getting cross and dressing him myself because we are short of time. No matter how many times I ask / try and bribe it is always the same. Any help on getting him to realise that he needs to do this for himself would be very much appreciated.

It is quite striking how many times I get asked this question. It’s very stressful for parents who are struggling to get to work or make it to the school bus stop on time. But whatever we do we have to work hard on staying calm and keeping the stress out of our voice or face. And trying to keep it fun (“race you to see who can get dressed first” – make sure he wins!)

There are a couple of things that seem to help, but the larger question is always to look at the bigger Self-Reg picture. Does this always happen or is there any sort of a pattern: does it happen more on days when he underslept? Is he simply tired? Is he over-stressed? If so, he likely didn’t hear you any of the 10 times.

The big questions in Self-Reg are always “why?” and “why now?” Invariably this behaviour is the child’s way of telling us something important, even though he may not be consciously aware of this or even able to express what he’s feeling.

Is something happening at school that accounts for this avoidant behaviour? Is he experiencing some sort of separation anxiety and this is his way of trying to delay the inevitable? If so, it’s helpful to schedule some quiet time together before the day starts: “if you get dressed in 3 minutes you and I can have a quiet breakfast together.” I always prefer the “rewards” to be time with mommy or daddy, rather than, say, time on a computer. 

Sometimes the problem is simply that the child gets distracted by something and actually forgets that they were supposed to be getting dressed.
Young children have a very poor sense of time. The ten minutes feels like a minute to them. Sometimes using a timer actually helps.

It’s always a good idea to talk about this with his teacher. The more welcome he feels when he arrives at school the easier the dressing will be. What is especially helpful is if there’s something that he really enjoys the first thing he arrives at school.

Then there’s the question of the clothes themselves. Having him choose what he wants to wear the night before and laying them all out can help.

Recently stressful moments happen when my oldest boy (7) winds up my youngest (3). Either he ignores him when the youngest is desperately trying to tell him something or he calls him names which he knows will produce an unhappy reaction. However much I ask / tell him to stop the oldest keeps going, he loves it when the little one gets more and more upset and we end up with a full blown crying/screaming fit. I’d love advice.

I love this question as I’ve met very few families that weren’t experiencing this. And it’s so hard for a parent to stay calm when they see this happening.

I think we all understand the dynamics at play here: jealousy or frustration, the need to experience a feeling of power or dominance, seeking a surge of adrenaline. Knowing that this happens in every family helps, because it’s important that we stay calm ourselves. If we slip into limbic arousal that just adds fuel to the flames of his limbic arousal.

As always, we need to reframe. The behaviour is a sign of over-stress. When this happens the child has slipped into fight-or-flight (the name calling is a discharge behaviour: using words as a form of hitting). So our first thought must always be: why is he so stressed that he’s taking it out on his little brother? What are the stressors that led up to this?

The first step is always to separate if this is possble. Not as a form of punishment (“go to your room”) but rather, to calm the situation for both of them (the younger one needs to feel protected).

These are learning opportunities, but your child can’t learn – can’t process – anything until he has calmed down. So we need to wait for that moment and then very quietly and gently ask why he was so upset and did he know how much this hurt his little brother. Has someone been doing this to him? How does he feel when it happens? What is really useful is to turn this into a Self-Reg learning opportunity, talking about stress in general and why he wanted to hurt.

There are some times when it is very hard to play this regulating role, for instance, when you’re driving and they’re in the rear seat. These are obviously the times when you have to be very firm. But it’s important to bear in mind that the limbic system is running the show in this situation and the PFC is off-line. Remember that many children are very stressed by being in the car: the motion is a stressor, confined space, the bumps and noises, traffic, etc.

My children both have melt-downs about certain things – these are our ‘trigger points’ that set us all off on a spiral of stress and (sometimes) shouting:

– Brushing hair
– Brushing teeth
– Getting bags ready for school

These are things they have to do EVERY DAY and yet every day it’s a battle. It does my head in. They procrastinate or don’t do it properly and it drives me and my husband BANANAS. Any tips?

It drives all of us bananas! But knowing why this is happening can help enormously.

Take teeth brushing. This is something that is just so obvious to parents: we know how important it is and what’s more, most of us enjoy the sensation, or at least how we feel afterwards. Yet many children are extremely sensitive to either the taste of the toothpaste or the brushing sensation. For them teeth-brushing is an incredibly aversive experience. So we need to work very hard to reduce the stress of the experience. We might need to experiment with different toothpastes, use a finger brush or one of the apps that have been created to make brushing fun.

Just remember one thing: they aren’t resisting because they’re oppositional and they can’t understand the whole concept of “brushing to avoid cavities.” What seems to be particularly helpful is if you have a set routine of when they brush, the same time every day.

Similarly for brushing their hair, are they sensitive to the sensation on their scalp? Do they dislike having to stand still? Once again we need to go into stress-reduction/stress-prevention mode. Keep their hair short; use tangle-free shampoos; be very gentle when washing or brushing their hair; experiment with different types of combs or brushes; see if they want to brush it themselves; use one of the songs for kids to sing when washing or brushing. Above all you need to make it as fun as you can – for all of you.

The “getting your bags ready for school” is another universal. Often the problem here is simply that the parts of the brain that we use to plan and organize are under-developed, so to help them we might make a list together, or if it’s the same thing every day, a chart, and then have them tick off each item once they’ve put it into the bag. It also helps to do this the night before rather than in the morning when they’re getting ready for school.