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How to stop tantrums—before they start

By teaching kids how to self-regulate, York professor Stuart Shanker argues, we are giving them the tools to cope with the stresses of life. Which means, far fewer tantrums…

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Photo: Amazon

Photo: Amazon

We’ve all been there: Your toddler has a complete meltdown over having to wear blue socks and you haven’t the foggiest idea what triggered it or how to help. Or maybe your tween completely refuses to get on the school bus one morning, when she’s happily been taking it for years. You try to reason with her, cajole her into telling you what’s up or maybe even scold her for being difficult. Someone eventually wins out: Either you capitulate, exasperated, or your child reluctantly gives in, in a fit of anger and tears.

But guess what? It doesn’t have to be this way. A new book by Stuart Shanker, a research professor of philosophy and psychology at York University in Toronto, entitled Self Reg: How to Help Your Child (and You) Break the Stress Cycle and Successfully Engage with Life, explains how appropriate self-regulation can help both you and your brood. I sat down with him to ask how and why self-reg works, and how families can integrate his strategies into their every day.

What is self-reg in a nutshell? And what’s the difference between self-regulation and self-control?
Self-reg is a method that we’ve worked on for many years [at York], to help with self-regulation in children of all ages. The original definition is how well a kid copes with stress and then recovers from the experience.

Self-regulation is what makes self-control possible. Self-control refers to the effort a child has to make in order to control impulse, whereas self-regulation is about stopping those impulses in the first place. When a child has too much stress, he slips into “fight or flight” mode. And in “fight or flight,” a very primitive part of the brain—the limbic system, the part of the brain that controls strong impulses—takes over, and the rational part of the brain starts to shut down. We try to get the latter part to come back online, by doing self-reg. We reduce the arousal of the limbic system to get those intense impulses to subside.

As the mom of a four-year-old and a 22-month-old, this concept appeals to me. What would you say are the first steps toward becoming a self-reg family or parent?
Parents need to recognize the signs of stress behaviour, rather than quickly labelling it misbehaviour. Just as parents need to recognize when their baby is ill, they also need to be able to look at their kids and figure out that they’re stressed. You’d never punish your child for being sick, and exactly the same theory applies to stress behaviour. Once parents understand that they’re dealing with stress behaviour, they can begin to work through the next steps of self-reg.

Are there classic signs of stress behaviour, or do they vary from person to person?
The classic signs are lack of response—your child may not hear you calling them— as well as low frustration tolerance and irritability. Your child may seem angry or afraid. You should also look at their complexion: In stress behaviour, people tend to go a little pasty. Look at their eyes: They may avoid looking at you. Listen to their voice: In stress situations, the voice tends to become a little higher and strained. Watch their movements: Do they start to jiggle or fidget? Then there are subtle signs unique to each person, to express that they are over-stressed, and you have to pay attention to your child during times of stress behaviour to determine what those personal indicators are.

I know that your approach centres on the same five steps (recognizing stress behaviour, identifying stressors, reducing stress, acknowledging the feeling of excessive stress and figuring out how to regain composure) in each situation. How is it that the same steps work for both infants and teenagers?
When that teenager is having a meltdown, they have regressed to the level of an infant. And that’s hard for parents to understand. But as you work with a kid at various ages, you can explain more and more with language, to help them understand what’s happening at each step. In the infant stage the parent is carrying 100 percent of the regulation load, but by the time that baby is a teenager, we want the kid to carry 75 percent of his or her own self-regulation. So there’s a shift from top-down, parent-child regulation to parent-teen co-regulation. It becomes much more balanced. 

Do you think people need to learn this as kids for it to be effective?
There’s never an age at which a kid can’t learn this. It’s never too late. But this is a lifelong thing, and we get better and better at it. Mom and Dad should be doing this too, to help themselves. Genetics and personality do play a part, and if Mom and Dad have trouble with self-regulation, it’s important that you work at it together so kids learn by example to cope better. And let me tell you something: When a parent gets stressed, they may be saying all the right things but their voice will betray them and show how they’re really feeling. So you have to self-regulate to calm yourself first, to reframe the stress, before helping your child. It’s the classic oxygen-mask example. But we’re all human: We all get frustrated and say things we don’t want to say, and parents need to be gentle with themselves. I lose it all the time and I’m Dr. Self-Reg!

My 22-month-old is not a great sleeper. She wakes up at least twice a night, no matter what my husband and I do, and the only thing that calms her is snuggling. But that goes against everything we’ve been told about teaching kids to sleep well independently. How can self-reg help here?
What we say is, provided that it’s not really hard on you or your partner, snuggle her. A baby has a very limited repertoire for telling you “I’m scared.” That’s what’s happening. And our major goal as parents is to make kids feel safe when they’re with us. That’s so much more powerful than the idea that they need to develop resilience. No, they need to feel safe and secure. She will outgrow the need for Mommy and Daddy as a physical presence—she will get to the point where just thinking about you will calm her.

But I guess the larger question is, then, how do you walk the line between addressing the stressor and becoming permissive? Because we all know that boundaries are important.
Boundaries are extremely important. Kids must have limits. So how does self-reg look at limits? Episodes of limit-setting are opportunities for the child to learn what’s expected of them, that there are consequences. Lack of structure is in fact a serious stressor in its own right.

But, for instance, in the case of my older child, she cries over the smallest things. I know you’ve said that tears are a form of self-regulation, but I don’t understand how to fix many of her stressors without just giving in.
This is where reframing is important. The tears, the behaviour, looks crazy or irrational to us, so we get stuck on the issue without recognizing that, really, her stress load is way too much. Those tiny things that set her off are cues to you that, “Hey, my kid is way too stressed.” She is spent and in a state of low energy and high tension, so we have to go into soothing mode. We offer a distraction to calm her down, so we can explain why the stressor at hand isn’t a big deal. If you do it in a soft, gentle voice, she’ll accept the explanation.

So how is the approach to misbehaviour different from stress behaviour?
If it’s misbehaviour, that’s when we get into consequences. Misbehaviour means that the child was aware of what they were doing, that they could have acted differently, that they made the wrong choice. We want them to understand that there are consequences when they act inappropriately. And once you start to recognize the signs of stress behaviour, it’s easier to identify what you’re dealing with and what the next steps should be.

Does self-reg always work?
It always works. For some kids, it will work first shot, but with other kids, you may be doing this for 10 years. And even when it seems like it’s not working, there are little, tiny signs that it is. And if you can get yourself into that calm state, you’ll be able to see little cues that you might have previously missed. The progress is always there in the practice of self-regulation. It’s not like a haircut; there isn’t really a before-and-after. It’s a life-long pursuit.

Read more:
29 toddler discipline tactics that work
Yoga for kids: How to clam little minds
Five-minute kid-friendly meditation