Above all, self-control: Effortful control

21 January 2019
Above all, self-control: Effortful control

To regulate or not to regulate…those are key skills that we all need!

We have all witnessed children and perhaps even adults, exhibit different forms of emotional control, or lack thereof, within given situations. Tantrums, meltdowns, outbursts are some of the more common forms of emotional expressions that may be hard to forget.

In the previous article, we read about the importance of communication. It turns out that language is in fact a key component in helping children regulate their emotions more efficiently than if they were unable to verbally communicate. Verbal communication is one mechanism through which children co-regulate - with their parents - their emotions. And although regulation of emotions originates before the development of language, with the start of verbal communication, it becomes an important mechanism for emotion regulation.

What is emotion or self-regulation?

Simply put it is the ability to manage one’s emotions given a particular situation or context, ultimately to accomplish individual goals, primarily in the social context. This means that emotion regulation is the mechanism through which your child will be able to adapt to the social environment. Emotion regulation encompasses both positive and negative emotions.

What impacts self-regulation?

Just like adults, your child has innate abilities for self-regulation that are based on a combination of their temperament and their learned behavior. So, it is a combination of nature which provides the temperament and the environment which is filled with plenty of unpredictability and where your child is expected to handle difficult social situations that have to fit certain ‘social norms’ within a given cultural context.

Since the environment plays a significant role in the learned regulatory skills, and since there is a relational element within the regulation of emotions, here are a few things you can do to support effortful control/emotion regulation for your children.
Don’t underestimate the importance of your early relationship with your child:

Early mother-child relationships play a very important role in self-regulation. Emotion regulation is a dynamic interpersonal process and not an individual phenomenon. The way your child expresses and regulates emotions within his/her present social context is usually a reflection of the history of your social interactions early on. This means that if you as a parent encourage expressions of positive emotions when they are younger, they will model positive emotions to adapt to their environment. But if your child’s temperament triggers emotions of distress during your interactions, then their learned behaviors will reflect that over time.

Scaffold your child’s emotional control – directly or indirectly:

As a parent, your role in regulating your child’s emotions is to model or demonstrate how to solve a problem, and then step back, offering support as needed. This is known as scaffolding. Let us take the example of your child throwing a temper tantrum, or what adults tend to classify as ‘bad behavior.’ Punishing your child for bad behavior will not help them gain better control – they cannot be forced to stop. Calm your child down, by gently removing them out of the negative environment, and talking with a neutral tone to come to a common understanding. What you are doing is indirectly instilling certain coping skills that they might be able to use when in a difficult situation. So depending on what you model in terms of emotion regulation is what may allow your child to develop positive coping strategies. They will eventually internalize and make their own unique regulation styles that they will carry along with them in their social context.

Avoid gender stereotyped language about emotions:

It is common for parents to stereotype behavior based on gender of the child. In terms of emotions, expressions and control, it is more acceptable for girls to cry than boys – this means that if a boy cries, he is often reminded that he is a boy and boys don’t cry. It has also become an acceptable social norm that boys are allowed to scream more than girls. Well, the truth of the matter is we adults are guilty as charged! We nurture gender biased behaviors amongst our children and hence affect their coping mechanisms and hence your kid’s self-control.

Dear mums! Ultimately, all humans have feelings and emotions that need to be expressed and regulated. The difference is that children need to be supported to regulate their emotions to help them better adjust to their environment. Remember… what you model in how you communicate, express, regulate… is how your child will most likely learn to self-regulate or not. So be aware of your own self-regulation skills…what you do is what you get.

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