From the moment your baby is born many of the things you are naturally doing as a caregiver such as smiling at your baby, rocking your baby, and trying to detect why they are crying are laying important foundations for your child’s self-regulation. Helping your child develop their ability to self-soothe and self-regulate is not only important for them managing their emotions and behaviors but is also essential for other areas of their development including their physical health, learning and social relationships. The more ease and speed by which your child can calm in the face of stress, the more their body is able to devote precious resources to other important physical and mental processes. Dr. Shanker, a leading expert on self-regulation, identified five steps caregivers can take to support their child’s developing self-regulation:
- Recognize your child’s signs of stress: Does your child make a certain cry, change their movement (e.g., appear frozen/withdrawn and notably increase their movements), change their sleep or eating patterns when faced with stress in their environment? How does your child show he/she has needs that need to be met (e.g., hunger, exhaustion)?
- Recognize what causes your child stress: What causes stress to one child, may be very different for another child. Recognizing your child’s stressors involves noticing their response to different potential stressors in their environment. For example, does your child become agitated or cry by certain lighting, temperatures, sensations, or sounds? How does your child react when their sleep or feeding schedule gets altered? How does your child respond to strong emotions in others around them? How does your child respond to challenging or frustrating cognitive tasks?
- Reduce stress in your child’s environment: Once you have identified what causes your child stress, you can help your child by reducing stressors in their environment.
- For example, if your child is sensitive to loud noises, you might move to a different room or play quiet calming sounds in their room to block out louder jarring sounds. If your child seems overwhelmed by bright lighting you may dim the lights or draw the shades. If your child is very sensitive to intense emotional discussions, you make choose to reserve these for when your child is outside of the room.
- Another way to reduce stress in your child’s environment is by providing consistent and predictable routines in their environment. This can help to reduce your child’s stress and over stimulation by helping them know what to expect. It can also be helpful to prepare your child when you know they are going to face stress.For example, if your child is transitioning to a new childcare provider or setting, it can reduce stress by familiarizing them with the new environment in advance, and integrating familiar objects and routines into the new environment.
- Reflect/enhancing stress awareness. Young children often lack the ability to detect when they feel stressed and understand what it feels like to feel calm versus alert. As a caregiver, you can be their stress detective, helping them to develop an understanding of what it feels like when they are stressed versus calm, and helping them to draw the connection between their body and mind. Developing a strong understanding of your own stress cues can be helpful in this process. For example, how do you feel in your own body and mind when you are stressed versus calm? Where do you notice stress in your body? For example, do your muscles tense or relax, does your breath slow or sleep up? Being able to detect when you are becoming stressed mentally and physically and when your body and mind have returned to a state of calm, can help you to experiment with which calming techniques work best when you face stress.
- Respond. Once you notice your child is stressed, how you respond to help your child calm and recover may depend on their developmental level. Your response is laying the foundation for your child learning to self-soothe and regulate on their own.
- Warm Physical Touch: For infants, the most basic form of response is your physical presence. Holding your infant or stroking their face, rocking/bouncing, or responding in a soothing voice while smiling are all examples of physical comfort.
- Narrate the Experience: As children advance in their ability to understand and use language, it can be helpful to provide physical comfort while also narrating your child’s internal state to help them know you understand their emotions and are there to help. For example, if your toddler is crying after hearing a loud noise, you could put your hand on their back and say, “That was a loud sound, it surprised you and you felt a little scared. It was just the garbage disposal, and you are safe.”
- Support Child Skills: Although toddlers start to achieve the language and abilities to be able to label their emotions and calm their bodies, they often need significant prompting and support. For example, when a toddler becomes upset with their toy, they may be able to learn to say, “toy broke” or “I am frustrated” or even “help”; yet, they will likely need their caregiver to prompt these words and help them to problem solve and calm their bodies by sitting with them and providing a supportive touch (e.g., hug, backrub) and supportive words (e.g., “It can be frustrating when your toy does not do what you want it to, but it is going to be ok, what if we try using it like this.”)
- Model: You can help your child to self-regulate by modeling your own self-regulation process. This can involve detecting and labeling your emotions and narrating for your child your process for tolerating and managing stress. For example, if you stub your toe, you could say out loud to your child “Ouch, that hurt when I stubbed my toe, and I feel angry that I didn’t see the door there. I am going to take a moment to rub my toe and take a deep breath to make myself feel better.”
Each child varies in their self-regulation abilities and response to stress in their environment. As a caregiver you have the amazing opportunity to learn your child’s specific stressors and stress cues and promote your child’s self-regulation by responding with warmth and sensitivity. By following Dr. Shanker’s five steps you are helping your child to learn to self-soothe and supporting your child as a whole child by fostering their physical, behavioral and emotional well-being.