In Dr. Jim Wilder’s series on attachment parenting, he raised the important, difficult (and sensitive) question, can my child be trusted? Yikes! That strikes right at the heart of this mama. Can my children be trusted? “Of course!” I want to yell in response, but in reality, the answer is “sort of.”
Until Jim raised this question in the series, it was one I had not given much thought to. What does it look like to have a trustworthy child? As parents, how do we help our children get there?
As I have prayed about it and talked with others, I realized self-regulation is the key. When my child becomes upset, can he calm himself? When my child grows excited, can he rein it into an appropriate (not out of control) level? When my child slips out of relational mode, can he find his way back? When my child feels mad/sad/scared, does he still act in a way that reflects his heart? Does my child recognize and know how to back off when his energy, intensity, or proximity becomes overwhelming?
My answer to these questions is sometimes, but not as consistently as I would like. Both of my boys have their struggles with this, and our older son actually more than our younger. Matthew’s ADD brain is very busy, and quieting is a big struggle for him. He can do it, but it takes a lot of effort on his part and often a reminder on my part. As for recognizing when his intensity/energy/voice is too much, his focus and attention are rarely strong enough to notice that he is overwhelming someone although when it is pointed out to him, he does make an effort to tone it down and quiet himself.
I love that we have the language to talk about this in our home. Because we are often pointing out to the boys when they need to “turn it down” or “quiet themselves,” or when they are “getting hyper,” they also have started noticing when others need a little regulation and can name it. Last week they were interacting with a friend of mine who was asking them how the camp was going for them that week. The boys responded that they LOVED camp, but that there was a boy there who didn’t know how to quiet himself. When I heard this, it made me laugh and smile to hear they were noticing these things and able to talk about them.
Our boys are seven and nine now, so self-regulation is part of their job description. They are at an age and stage of life when it is their responsibility to regulate themselves. I still have to help them at times; but unless something out of the ordinary happens, it is usually through reminders for them to regulate themselves rather than mutual regulation. As Jim said in the last installment of his series, “We save ‘mutual mind’ moments-of-attunement for times when something very unexpected and distressing happens.”
But what if your children are younger? Mutual regulation is how children learn to begin regulating themselves. When we sit with them to help them quiet, attune with them when they are upset, and help them get back into relational mode, we are teaching them the skills and establishing the pathways they will use to manage their feelings, ups and downs, and bumps in the road. Our children can start learning to regulate as early as three years old, but it is between the ages of 4 and six that they are learning to master their regulation. Like a baby who is learning to walk, we don’t expect they can do it all by themselves after taking their first step; but we support them as they stay on their feet for longer and longer stretches, while also being prepared to step in when they fall.
By age 4, we start turning over things over to our kiddos for self-regulation. If we have been helping them regulate up to this point, they have learned enough to start doing it on their own. At this stage, when something upsetting happens, we can encourage them to get their footing while we also step away to regain our balance.
So did we do this well in our home? Not fully! We did lots of mutual regulation with the boys when they were little but did not “turn over the reins” as early as we should have. Even now, the boys still need some help (or at least a reminder) to regain their balance when something knocks them over.
In our family, these reminders are often accomplished through our code words, asking the boys to do VCRC, and having the boys take a quiet practice (this is different from a timeout, and I will talk about how we use these next time). These tools have given us an excellent structure to support the boys in their self-regulation efforts while keeping my input and involvement to a minimum. There are still times that they are so upset by something that I sit with them and hold them. Or they get so far out of relational mode that I slip into Stealth mode to help them get back online. My goal is to give them the space they need to manage their own ups and downs while encouraging them along the way.
What have you found to help your kids work on regulating and quieting themselves when they are upset? Please comment below. As parents we can always benefit from the creativity of other parents.