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Challenging Behaviors: Why We Shouldn’t Expect Kids to Self-Regulate Too Soon

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Five-year-old Nathan was excited about a family outing to the zoo, but his mother worried he would not be able to control his behavior. So she explained her carefully devised plan. She had ten gummy bear candies with her. If Nathan behaved well, she would give him all ten at the end of the visit. Each time he misbehaved, though, he would lose one.

After just half an hour, Nathan was down to five gummy bears. Then he tossed French fries at his brother at lunchtime, and his mother told him he was down to three. Upset, Nathan leaned back in his chair so far it toppled over, much to his mother’s chagrin.

Unfortunately, her plan was doomed from the start. Why? It was based on a false assumption: that Nathan was capable of controlling his behavior. Amidst the popular focus on “self-regulation” among professionals, educators and parents, too often we miss a significant point: we cannot really teach a child to self-regulate. Self-regulation is a developmental process that we can nurture and encourage in one way: through the experience of emotional co-regulation with caring and attuned adults.

So how do children develop the capacity for self-regulation? Over time, as a child experiences what it feels like to have his or her emotional and physical needs met, she develops a robust brain-body connection, which, in turn enables the child to exercise “top-down” control of behaviors and emotions. Children start acquiring this capacity at age three or four, and continue to develop it throughout childhood.

But the ability to self-regulate requires the brain development that helps kids carry it out. If we expect children to control their behaviors when they lack the foundation in their brain-body connection, we are asking for the impossible.  And unfortunately, we expect the impossible from too many children who don’t yet have the neurodevelopment in place to self-regulate.

Too often we base our expectations of children on a false assumption: that children possess “top-down” control that allows them to think about their bodies and minds and control their behaviors. The truth is that many behaviorally challenged children don’t yet have this ability.

Parents tend to believe that if a child sometimes displays control, then the child always has the ability to do so. That mistaken belief reveals an expectation gap—a disparity between adults’ assumptions and a child’s abilities.

When children lack top-down control, we need to start with emotional co-regulation—when caring, attentive adults notice and attend to a child’s physical and emotional needs. We do this through relationships. In my subspecialty, infant mental health, we call this approach “the therapeutic use of self.”

In other words, we help build a child’s brain from the bottom-up. If a child has chronic difficulties controlling emotions or behaviors, it’s a sign that her top-down foundation is weak. She needs loving, attuned and non-judgmental adults who “see” her suffering. It’s these relationships that support a child’s ability to gain emotional and behavioral self-control.

Too many educational and social-service programs overlook the crucial importance of relationships, instead focusing on behavior management.  That’s why I spend so much of my time teaching providers and parents about social and emotional development. A basic grasp of neuroscience and social-emotional development can help us understand how to avoid asking too much, too soon of children. It also helps us avoid inadvertently causing shame or embarrassment to children who can’t understand why they can’t behave or meet adult expectations, even though they want to. We must be especially mindful of this need in our populations of children exposed to ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences) and toxic stress. Reward and punishment paradigms, in wide use today on these populations, are not advised. I explain the reasons why in my new book on challenging behaviors.

When we ask too much of children too soon, we can inadvertently provoke self-criticism and shame. Kristin Neff, the world’s primary researcher on self-compassion, offers a solution: we can show children early on how to have compassion for themselves and accept their own vulnerability. In other words, when behaviors are a problem, we can help children have compassion for themselves and look towards adults for help.

When we are present with children, and compassionately aware of our own emotions, we preserve the most precious factor in a child’s process of developing self-regulation: human connection.

Beyond Behaviors is available on Amazon.

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