My grandson, 5 years and some, walked into the house looking decidedly downcast. He did not respond to my queries about why he was out of sorts. He went into the den and fiddled around, mumbling, crooning, muttering to himself. I tried to cajole him into sharing his woes with me but he did not acknowledge my presence. I decided to leave him alone. After a few minutes I attracted his attention with a box of choco-chip cookies. First he just peeked from the corner of his eye and then, after what seemed like an eternity, he stuck two fingers out, implying he wanted me to give him two cookies. I said I could give him only one. Seemed like we were back on and all was going to be fine.
What had happened was that his older sister and he had come over to us because their parents had gone to the hospital to get their vaccine shots. While my granddaughter was unemotional about the said event, the idea of a needle being stuck into his parents' arms clearly had left my grandson unsettled. Needles were horrendous things to deal with and all doctors with needles weren't nice people! Needle in the arm then, was the emotional trigger! But wait. He did not share that with me just yet. Once the cookie was inside him, he came to where I was working and tried to explain off his earlier behavior to me:
"Nani" he said, not meeting my eyes yet. "I like alone-time sometimes.”
"Of course" I countered.
“I like my space. I don’t like it when people ‘unspace’ me.” I tried hard not to laugh. "Unspace!” I got the point.
When we witness any undesirable behavior in a child, chances are that there is some emotion at play in the background. Let's make a clear distinction between feelings and behavior first. Feelings are emotions a person experiences. Everyone goes through all kinds of emotions through their lives. Interestingly our brains come pre-wired with some emotions. Anger, joy, love, sadness, fear are widely considered to be some of these primary emotions.Then there are secondary emotions which are feelings that feed off our primary emotions. Eg. from Anger could be born Frustration or Anxiety.
When something happens to disturb the equilibrium of emotions, behavior undergoes a change. In order to understand a particular behavior we need to know the emotional triggers that are causing it. Eg. A child might be very angry because he was not allowed to go play with his friends. His anger leads him, perhaps to kick things, bang doors, or scream in rage. These actions are behavior.
Not letting oneself be overwhelmed by any of these feelings is what emotional regulation is all about. So regulating our feelings helps us get a good grip on our reactions stemming from any particular emotion.
How can we help our child?
1. Acknowledging the emotion.
Help the child identify the feeling. Are you angry? Are you sad? Are you scared? Are you excited?
2. Providing children with opportunities to make decisions.
Talking about how we have choices and how we control whether we make good choices or bad choices. What would you rather do, cycling in the cold or stay indoors and do some other fun activity?
3. Providing children with opportunities to practice self-control.
Remember the Stanford marshmallow experiment about delayed self gratification. The experiment features two children. Each of them is offered the choice to either eat one marshmallow right away or to wait for a specified period of time and be rewarded with two marshmallows. The child seeking immediate gratification goes for the first choice while the one with better self-control opts for the second. This study provides insight into self-control and self-regulation.
4. Giving him or her advance notice of an event likely to occur will provide thinking time to deal with it when it occurs.
Eg. "We will be going to the playground and when I say that it is time to leave, we will have to leave". This way he already knows that he cannot give in to temper tantrums when the call to leave is made.
Control over emotions is an art that we refine as we grow in maturity. We do know that upto the age of 6 there is rapid growth of our brain cells. These are the sensitive periods of learning. Development then continues until puberty. At this point a whole new set of regulation skills begin to form. Self-regulation skills continue to build upto the age of 25-30 years. Its a tough pathway, and how it plays out varies from child to child. But it is also a process that can be facilitated by the adult through targeted opportunities.