Valley Parents column: Laying the foundation for good mental health from childhood

By TONYA McMURRAY

For The Family Place

Published: 05-28-2024 11:05 AM

The early years of childhood are a time of tremendous learning and development. From learning how to walk and speak to learning to build block towers, read, ride a bike or play a sport, children are constantly learning.

This also is the time children begin learning to manage emotions, one of the foundational skills needed for good mental health as they grow into teens and adults.

Children begin life entirely dependent on adults to help them regulate, a process known as co-regulation. Co-regulation happens when parents pick up a crying infant and rock them. It happens when a parent sits next to a screaming preschooler and calmly empathizes with their emotions. Or when the parent of a teen brings in a snack and offers a listening ear after the teen has stormed off and slammed a door.

Co-regulation helps build the skills for self-regulation: self-soothing, identifying and managing emotions, planning, delayed gratification and problem-solving. Infants and toddlers need lots of co-regulation as they are just beginning to build capacity for self-regulation. As children grow, they learn and refine regulation skills, but may still need co-regulation at times of intense emotion.

The ABCs of co-regulation

When your toddler is on the floor screaming or your teen is stomping off in a huff swearing under their breath, it can be hard to stay calm. But the first step of co-regulation is regulating yourself. That may mean taking a few deep breaths or stepping out of the room for a few minutes to gain your composure.

The second step is making an emotional connection with your child. Get down on the child’s level so you can look them in the eye. Remain calm and talk slowly in a soft voice. Let them know you understand their feelings by saying things like “I know this is so frustrating for you” or “You are angry that you can’t go outside right now” or “You’re really sad that your friend had to go home.”

Think about what might be calming for your child: Maybe it’s a giant hug, rubbing their back or simply sitting nearby. Moving to a calmer space, turning down the lights or playing soft music are other good strategies.

Once a child is calm, you can engage in problem-solving. Help them come up with strategies to manage the problem at hand or to prevent it in the future. Children can only engage in this kind of thinking when their brains and bodies are calm.

Building self-regulation skills

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Many lessons for self-regulation are embedded in the day-to-day experiences of childhood.

Playing games involves learning to take turns and manage frustration. Interactions with siblings or peers help children learn to share and negotiate. And anytime you’ve played “I Spy” on a long car trip, you’ve taught the skill of distraction to manage difficult feelings or delay gratification.

Teaching children to identify and manage emotions is an important part of teaching self-regulation. Young children do not always have the language to name that big feeling that has just taken over their body so identifying their feelings by saying “You seem really mad right now” or “I think you might be feeling sad” helps them give a name to their feelings.

Helping children learn to connect body sensations to feelings also provides language for emotion. You might say “I see your fists are clenched and your face is all scrunched up. That makes me think you’re angry,” or “Your eyes and mouth are really big. I think you were surprised by that.”

Once children know what they are feeling, they may need help figuring out how to manage it in an appropriate manner. Prompting them to take deep breaths can be helpful. Young children often have difficulty knowing how to take a deep breath. You can help them by asking them to blow bubbles or by teaching breathing exercises such as Hot Chocolate Breaths or Birthday Candle Breaths.

To teach Hot Chocolate Breaths, ask your child to pretend they have a cup of hot chocolate. Have them breathe in through their nose so they can see how good it smells. Then remind them that it’s very hot so they need to blow out through their mouth (slowly so it doesn’t splash) to help cool it down.

To teach Birthday Candle Breaths, have children pretend they have a birthday cake in front of them and need to blow out all the candles with one breath. They need to take a big breath in so they have lots of air and then let it out slowly so they get all the candles.

Sometimes children need something more active to help them manage a strong emotion.

Inviting them to stomp like a dinosaur, run around the yard, race to the tree or squeeze the Play-Doh really hard can teach them acceptable ways of managing the energy of strong emotions.

Other ways of teaching self-regulation skills include helping children learn planning and problem-solving. Identify situations that you know are difficult for your child and then talk about how to manage those.

If your child struggles with transitions, work on a cue or ritual that helps them know a transition is coming. That might be a “10-second count down” or letting them say goodbye to things in the room.

If your child has difficulty in the waiting room at the dentist, work with them to make a plan.

Say something like, “Tomorrow we’re going to the dentist and we’ll probably have to wait before we can see him. Let’s talk about something we can do in the waiting room that will help you be calm while we wait.”

Giving children responsibility and allowing them to experience mistakes and tolerable amounts of stress also builds self-regulation skills. Giving children a chore helps them build self-esteem and a sense of competency. It also teaches the importance of doing things we might not like.

Helping children understand that making mistakes is not only OK but can be opportunities for learning teaches them self-compassion and self-reflection. Letting them manage tolerable amounts of stress — especially “good stress” such as starting kindergarten or going to a new camp — helps them practice self-regulation skills.

Emotional regulation skills are the foundation for good relationships, healthy choices and resilience — all important for good mental health. Mental health is a combination of environmental, biological and genetic factors.

Even with the best effort at teaching your child self-regulation, they may still struggle.

If you find your child is not meeting social and emotional developmental milestones or is engaging in behaviors that are long-lasting and impact their ability to learn, form relationships or function effectively in your family, you may want to seek advice from your child’s pediatrician or a mental health professional.

Tonya McMurray is a licensed clinical mental health counselor and the clinical director at The Family Place. She has provided mental health services to children and families in Vermont and New Hampshire for more than 20 years.