Children who are in a heightened state of emotional arousal can have very sensitive limbic systems, where their brains are primed to respond to threats even when none exist. For example, experiments have shown that children who are chronically over-aroused will label neutral faces as hostile.
This means that children who react with hostility or by shutting down are likely showing the outward signs of an inward experience of stress overload. If we don’t recognize the signs, figure out what is stressing them, and help them to cope – instead of using blame, threats or punishments – we will continue to make matters worse for them, rather than better.
A parent’s reaction to a child’s stress is important to their later ability to self-regulate, starting in the first years of their life. Nature intends for human parents to play a close, nurturing role with their offspring and to take advantage of the “interbrain” – the shared intuitive channel of communication between a parent and child that is maintained by touch, shared gaze, voice, and, most of all, shared emotion. This is what helps a stressed child develop a way of self-soothing that will stay with them and allow them to cope with stressors in their lives.
Providing warm, nurturing care early in life can go a long way towards stress management. But that doesn’t mean that parents are solely responsible for their child’s ability to adapt. Even kids who have enjoyed warm, nurturing parenting can have trouble with self-regulation. That’s why it’s important to understand how it works and how we, parents, can help.
Here are some helpful steps that can help parents deal with a problematic behavior or anxiety in their children more effectively:
- Recognize when your children are over stressed – If you learn to read the signs and recognize them for what they are—a signal of a system on overload—you will be able to resist assigning blame or labels to your children. Reframing your children’s behavior as a reaction to stress rather than willful misbehavior, and learning to listen to your children and to observe them with curiosity, is the first and perhaps most important step in self-regulation.
- Identify the stressors in your children’s lives – Stressors can come from many sources—biological, emotional, cognitive, and social domains—so it’s important to consider all of these.
- Reduce those stressors – Reducing our children’s stress involves understanding what stresses us out and how it impacts our behavior. Learning how to soothe our own stress can help us self-regulate our emotions and lead to less reactivity towards our kids when they are suffering, as well as provide important role modelling for them.
- Help your children find calming strategies that work for them – There are many relaxation exercises that produce calm. Encourage your children to experiment with what helps them most and support them in finding relief.
- Take a long-term perspective – Following the steps of self-regulation does not guarantee your child will suddenly stop irritating or frustrating you, but it may help prevent some unnecessary suffering. When your children see that you truly understand them and that you are committed to doing what you can to help, it will go a long way towards improving your relationship with them, as well as their ability to cope with life’s challenges.
Working with your children in understanding their emotions and recognizing their stressors play a big part in helping them self-regulate. No one size fits all, so it is important that we guide them and help them become aware, and provide them the necessary support they need in overcoming their stressors. When we help our children, we are also helping everyone in our homes to have a better environment which means it’s less stress for everyone.