How to Teach Our Children the Important Skill of Self-Regulation

I’m a therapist, but I’m also a mom, wife, sister and daughter. Never in my whole life has someone telling me to “calm down” actually worked. In fact, if my husband says to me, to “Calm down. Take a deep breath.” I feel all of my 20 years of mental health training go out the door and I’m lucky to remember to take a deep breath before saying something I will really regret.

Yet, every day, I hear myself say to my daughter, “Calm down, take deep breaths. Stop yelling. Hurry up. Be quiet, be good.” So I started to wonder, why do I do that?

As a society, we value school subjects, such as math, science, English and place value on learning sports and music. Classes, after school practice, homework, tutors and coaches are all working with our kids day after day to learn and improve.

However, we do very little to help our children learn one of the most critical life skills: how to be calm. We tell them to be calm. We tell them to take deep breaths. But when do kids get safe space or time to practice? Where is the calm down coach?

Let’s think about this. Over the years, I’ve sat through many family member’s attempts to learn music. I remember distinctly my sister’s first foray into the clarinet. It was not pretty. But our family accepted this would be a process. We suffered through the scales and the off-key “Mary Had a Little Lamb” as she toiled away in her room learning how to master the basic first steps of this instrument. We never expected she’d emerge from her room in a week’s time with Beethoven.

Yet, this is what we do with our children when it comes to self-regulation. Every day we say “calm down, be quiet, be good” with very little practice and with huge expectations for Beethoven.

Parents: this isn’t our fault. Somewhere along the way, self-regulation became something that happens because.. well, it just will. And if it doesn’t happen easily? Well, you know what happens next: bring on the parent guilt and the well-intentioned “calm-downs.”

After reflecting on the hypocrisy of this, I have begun to add two very simple tasks for parents in my private practice (and honestly, I have begun to implement them at home, too).

One, instead of telling my daughter to calm down, I show her what her body feels like when it is agitated. Two, instead of only practicing these mind-body skill awareness control exercises when she is upset, we practice them all the time.

We have incorporated a few fun mind-body exercises in our day to day lives. When I see her running around the playground giggling with her girlfriends, I will ask her, “How is your heart rate? What does your body feel like?” then we will playfully try to lower our heart rates together. Some days, if it seems like she will be open to it, we will practice this when she is upset as well.

These strategies are not quite as effective as, say, letting my sister play ad nauseum the clarinet scales in her room. But, I am giving her some space and freedom to practice feeling her body and controlling it when her emotions seem particularly big and powerful.

I can’t say that these exercises have totally changed our family (or my clients) overnight. However, the way we are thinking about emotional regulation, as a skill to be slowly learned, practiced, cherished, has become part of our family culture. And we are all growing together.

I had a particularly bad morning recently. We were running really late and about to miss the bus. I said to my daughter, “Momma is frustrated — we’re going to miss the bus!” She came over to me put her hand on my heart and said, “It’s OK, Mom. Let’s try some deep breathing…”

Now that sounds like Beethoven to me.