Q&A Thursday: How do I teach my kids to self regulate their emotions?

QUESTION:

We recently attended your Intentional Parenting Conference. My husband and I thoroughly enjoyed it and learned quite a bit!! Thank you for that! 

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        We have 3 children (2 boys and a girl) and my youngest is by far the most challenging. One problem I have is, after I have thrown down the gauntlet, ex. "Go to your room", my son will refuse or fall to the floor and throw a fit.

        Do I pick him up, arms and legs flying and put him in his room? If after I put him there, do I stand at the door and hold it closed?

ANSWER:

I am certain that there are dozens of people reading this question, shaking their head in agreement and saying some version of “YES!  That happens to me too.”  It’s a great question, and we will inevitably find ourselves in a power struggle with a child who won’t follow through with a consequence we’ve delivered.   A helpful question to ask yourself is “can I enforce that?”  We are advocates of only giving kids consequences we can easily enforce.  For example, rather than saying “you were disrespectful, hand me your cell phone.”   Only to have a child hold it behind their back and say “you can’t take that from me, I bought with my birthday money.”   Your options at this point are to restate the consequence ten more times or start reaching for it behind their back - neither are good choices.  

 A better option would be to say “you were disrespectful and I’m going to log on to AT & T in a few minutes and shut your phone down.  It will be back on tomorrow (or whenever you deem appropriate depending on the offense).” 

 You can use this same approach with a child who melts down or refuses to go to their room.  I’d start with some empathic response like “I can tell you are struggling.”   Or “I can tell you are feeling a lot of feelings right now.  I’m going to give you some time to work that through.  You need to go to your room and take some time.”

Let’s imagine at this moment they refuse to go to their room.  You can simply respond with “if you choose not to follow through with what I’ve asked of you, I will take 15 minutes off your screen time this evening.  The longer you CHOOSE to extend this, the more time I take away.  I’ll let you decide what you want to do.”

A great thing to do with an emotionally charged kid is to disengage.  Leave the room and go fold laundry, empty the dishwasher, or find some other task that allows you some space.

We can’t make an older child go to their room without carrying them there.  Entering this kind of physical exchange can be dangerous for both parties involved.  We can, however, choose to go to our room, or any other space in the house.  If an emotionally-charged child follows you there (which is violating a boundary) or bangs on your door screaming and yelling in an attempt to re-engage you, follow the same pattern of responding with empathy, reminding them of the choices they have, and then giving a consequence. 

Be careful not to take away something for a long period of time. We call that parenting out of emotion rather than parenting with emotion.  (Check out the chapter on Being a Balanced Parent in Intentional Parenting for more information and ideas on this.)  Taking away in small increments allows you to increase the consequence each time your child makes a choice to disobey, violate a boundary or disrespect you.

Lastly, keep in mind that learning to regulate emotion is a long, slow process for many kids (especially boys).  They need emotional coaching throughout childhood (and often into adolescence) in how to feel feelings, name feelings and take the emotion to something constructive.  It’s a learned skill not all that different than learning to read or learning to ride a bike.  Some kids take to this easily and experience early mastery.  Some kids struggle to acquire these skills.