Consistent parenting and guidance through infancy and early childhood helps children learn how to maintain an appropriate behavioral or emotional state—even in stressful situations.
This skill is called self-regulation. Soothing a hurt or frightened child helps them internalize that their needs will be met, and eventually children typically learn to sooth and calm themselves. Most children with secure attachments to a primary caregiver or parent master this skill as they grow.
Unfortunately, some children who grow up in unpredictable environments may lack a close bond with a caregiver and have difficulty self-regulating. But there are many things adoptive or foster care parents can do at home to help children learn this important life skill.
Laura Jean, a child welfare advocate for the University of Minnesota Health Adoption Medicine Clinic, shares some tips that parents can use to help children learn to self-regulate. Here’s what she had to say:
When a child joins a foster or adoptive family, they will likely need help learning about their emotional or physical needs and how to appropriately meet those needs. Parents should anticipate when the child will be hungry or tired and respond accordingly, for example. Parents should routinely ask their children what they need, how they are feeling and what the parent can do to help meet their needs. Some children may be insightful about their own needs. In other instances, they may struggle to understand why they are upset. Discussion can help develop a child’s self-awareness and lead to better self-regulation.
Creating predictable routines helps a child know what to anticipate and creates a sense of stability. Daily routines will inevitably vary to a certain extent because of doctor’s appointments, errands, travel, weekend activities, or other factors. No matter the circumstances, parents should consider keeping morning and bedtime routines the same.
Creating a visual chart of a child’s daily and nightly routines can help them internalize the routine and empowers them to complete the tasks with minimal reminders. The Adoption Medicine Clinic recommends that parents take photos of a child performing his or her daily routines—like brushing teeth, making a bed or getting dressed. Parents can then print two copies of those photos—one to glue on the board and one to give to the child. The child can then match his or her photo with the corresponding picture on the chart.
The Adoption Medicine Clinic recommends establishing calming strategies. For example, the parent and child can pretend to blow up balloons with long, slow breaths, perform yoga poses, put together a puzzle together, read a book or do some coloring. It’s helpful to practice these strategies when the child is already calm, so that they’re established and ready to use in a stressful situation. Parents may want to encourage discussions about feelings during these activities, so that the child understands the importance of these outlets.
A little positivity can go a long way. A parent can try telling a child what to do instead of what they can’t or shouldn’t do. Instead of saying “Don’t stand on the table,” try “Please put your feet on the floor.”
Phrasing things in a positive way elicits a more positive response from a child. If children don’t respond the first time they’re asked to do something, a parent should complete the task with their child and say what they’re doing and why. For example, a parent can say, “I’m going to help you get down, so you don’t fall and get hurt.”
When a child is having a hard time self-regulating, redirect them to a more calming activity. Parents may even need to stop what they are doing and perform the calming activity with the child. Parents should let a child know they can move on to another activity once they have calmed down. It’s important to avoid punishment. Instead of taking away a child’s privileges, such as screen time, encourage them to earn those privileges by calming down.
Parents should ensure that their child gets the daily movement and exercise they need. Stretches, jumping jacks, swinging, obstacle courses, bike rides, tumbling, and heavy work such as sweeping or watering plants are great for children. Weekly lessons or activities—such as swimming, martial arts, dance or gymnastics—are also helpful. Be mindful that your child may need a lot of additional support to help them self-regulate during and after such lessons or activities. Small class sizes and supportive instructors will be important to ensure that athletic activities are a positive experience for your child.
If parents have tried some of these strategies but still believe their child is struggling to self-regulate, they may need a comprehensive assessment to identify whether underlying medical, developmental or mental health issues are a factor in a child’s behavior. Early identification of those issues and appropriate interventions are crucial in helping children reach their potential.