Behavioral Regulation: Giving Our Kids the Power to Choose

Can you pick the most likely behavior in the following scenario?

Danny wants three cookies. Mom lets him have only one. What does Danny do now?

  1. Throw a tantrum
  2. Say, “You’re so mean!” and sulk
  3. Accept the cookie graciously and say thank you

If you’re frowning at the screen and saying to yourself, “Wait. How old is Danny?” then you asked the million dollar question!

You will naturally expect a ten-year-old to have a noticeably different ability to regulate his behavior than you would a six-year-old. And you would, in turn, expect a six-year-old to have different behavior regulation abilities than a two-year-old.

And if we’re talking about being denied some really yummy cookies, regulation is the name of the game. 

What is regulation, exactly? 

Regulation is the ability to manage emotions, behaviors and thoughts based on the environment and the situation, and to produce an appropriate response. Age-appropriate regulation is critical for, and a sign of, healthy development.

There are three categories of regulation: emotional, behavioral and cognitive. In a previous post, we dealt with emotional regulation in children. Emotional regulation is the child’s ability to identify and express his emotions. Without the ability to emotionally regulate, we don’t control our emotions; they control us. Emotional regulation is the foundation for all the other, higher categories of regulation. 

Behavioral regulation (the focus of this post) is the ability to choose how to manage one’s emotions in a given situation and express them in one’s behavior

Behavioral regulation is tied into cognitive regulation: the ability to direct one’s thought processes. Even if you can identify how you’re feeling and you could theoretically manage your behavior, if you can’t mentally process what you want to achieve and think clearly about what you want to do, that’s not likely to result in effective or situationally-appropriate behavior.

Mastering behavioral and cognitive regulation at an age-appropriate level is a prerequisite for social aptitude and success.

From emotions to actions

Let’s get back to our Danny and the cookies scenario.

Danny wants three cookies and Mom only agrees to one. What emotions does Danny experience? Likely possibilities include: disappointment, frustration, annoyance, upsetness and anger (what level, of course, depends on how good those cookies are).

Now the question is: what will Danny do? This is where behavioral regulation comes in.

Will Danny start to throw a tantrum? If he’s two years old, that would be a totally appropriate behavioral expression of emotions. If Danny is six, he should be beyond tantrums as a behavioral response. Shouting “you’re so mean!” and going off to sulk, however, would be an age-appropriate expression of behavioral regulation for six years old.

Helping your child get better at behavior regulation

As a parent, you have the ability to facilitate your child’s development of behavioral regulation. Here are some of the ways to do it:

Create a calm and safe environment

By creating a safe place for your child, he will have an easier time developing this crucial skill. All children, especially those with regulation issues, feed off their environment. They pick up on tension and act accordingly. As the parent, reflect in your own actions what you would like your children to be doing. When possible, work on your own breathing and other regulation supports to be in a good, calm place for your child.

Encourage pretend and imaginative play

When kids pretend to be someone else, whether a teacher, doctor or parent, they get to experiment with the expression of new emotions, thoughts and behaviors. Getting into someone else’s shoes (sometimes literally – what kid doesn’t love stamping about in high heels?) inspires thinking “in character,” sharpening their cognitive abilities. 

Children with regulation issues and those on the spectrum have a hard time engaging in pretend play. The DIR Floortime approach is a good way to facilitate pretend play for such children. Watch when your child starts to play and use that as your window into what she is interested in at the moment. Join the game, following her lead, and you will see that it facilitates increased attention and motivation to learn. Gently introduce small challenges and obstacles into the progression of the play, to help her “move up to higher levels of relating, communicating and thinking.”

Model the behavior you want to see

Verbalizing your thought processes and behavioral decisions will help teach your child the steps to take in regulating themselves. When your child hears how you work out problems, they can apply the process to their own challenges. 

Let’s say you’re in the car with your preschooler and you’re deciding the order of errands for the afternoon. You say aloud, “Mommy needs to buy more eggs to bake the cake for your party, but if I go to the store right now, I might be late to pick Jamie up from school. What’s the best thing for me to do now?” This kind of talk may seem ridiculous, but that’s how children learn to go through the steps in their own head, to define issues and degrees of importance and come to conclusions. 

Expressing your thought process out loud also enables your child to absorb your priorities: “It’s important for me to pick Jamie up on time. We’ll go get him first, and afterwards we’ll go to the store to get eggs.” 

Be specific in labeling your feelings: “I’m disappointed.” “I’m so excited! “I’m confused.” “I feel frustrated.” Many children with regulation issues are concrete thinkers; they’re either feeling “good” or “bad.” When you engage in modeling, you have the opportunity to expand your child’s emotional vocabulary

You can also verbalize your cognitive reaction to your emotions. “I’m disappointed, and it’s okay that I feel that way. Sometimes things don’t work out the way we want them to, and that hurts. But I’ll be all right.” The child subconsciously absorbs that there isn’t always a solution, but that it’s possible to cope anyway. This is a great expression of cognitive and behavioral regulation in action. 

Be aware: typically developing children will generally pick up when a parent is verbalizing a feeling. Children who have regulation issues, however, have a hard time with this. Their ability to feel or detect what the other person is feeling based on verbal expression may be severely compromised. For them, it’s not enough to only say how you feel, because they don’t pick up such cues naturally. 

Therefore, when modeling for such children, the expressions of emotion should be more magnified. Don’t only say, “Oh! This is frustrating,” but play up the drama with exaggerated verbal and facial expressions. The more the child gets to see how the reaction is connected to the language you’re using, the better he’ll pick up on those cues.

Mirror the behavior you don’t want to see

Mirroring children’s inappropriate situational reactions back to them is a variation on modeling that can also improve regulation. You can do this either by imitating the behavior under similar circumstances or by recording the behavior and showing it to the child later.

Let’s say your five-year-old constantly nudges or touches you to get your attention when you are in conversation with someone else. Pick a time when your child is talking to someone else and mimic the behavior. Touch, tap, nudge, nudge. (Note: this can be a very powerful technique, but you may need to feel out if your child is mature enough to appreciate it. Children who are not mature enough may get annoyed but still not realize that the behavior is inappropriate, or misunderstand the fact that you’re doing it as indication that it is appropriate.)

Or suppose you’re in the supermarket with your nine-year-old, and the woman in front of you just picked the last box of Frosted Flakes (your child’s favorite cereal) off the shelf. Your child starts complaining out loud: “It’s not fair! She’s so stupid!” 

Take out your phone and record your child. Later, when you get home, find a quiet few minutes to sit with your child and play it back. Exposing your child to how he sounded and/or looked can enable him to realize the inappropriateness of the behavior.

It’s crucial for either of these mirroring methods to take the time to review and discuss the situation. “Does this sound/feel good to you?” “How could we do this differently?” Once you’ve come to a conclusion, play-acting and practicing the agreed-upon appropriate response can boost your child’s regulation abilities even more.

Notice and validate when your child exhibits impulse control

Express your recognition when a child does something that’s hard for him. “I saw how hard it was for you to let your sister have a turn, and you were able to do it anyway. That takes a lot of strength/self-control/consideration/caring.” Noting specific examples of positive self-regulatory behaviors reinforces the child’s actions and thoughts in this area.

When a child is having difficulty with impulse control in a particular situation, teach them situationally-appropriate alternatives. A common example where you’ve probably witnessed lack of impulse control is when you’re in the middle of a conversation (either in-person or on the phone) with someone else: 

“Mommy! Mommy!” your child says, tapping you on the elbow. 

You look down for a second. “Give me a minute. I’m talking to Aunt Karen.” 

Your child waits impatiently for fifteen seconds. “Mommy! Mommy!” 

“Hang on, I’m still talking.” 

Another ten impatient seconds. “Mommy! Mommy!”

After a few rounds of this, you’re exasperated. “Hold on a second, Karen.” You turn to your child. “What IS it, already?!”

If this is a pattern for you, here’s a technique to try:

During a calm time, take your child aside and say, “I know sometimes you have to tell Mommy something and it’s very important to you. But I can’t talk to you right then.” Then touch your child softly on her hand or shoulder. “When I touch you like this, it means I see you have something to tell me and I really want to hear what it is. As soon as I finish my conversation, I will talk to you.”

Once you’ve introduced this concept, give your child that soft touch every time she interrupts a conversation. About two minutes after the initial interruption, pause your conversation and ask the child, “What is it you wanted to say?” 

You can and should increase the waiting time according to the child’s age and tolerance.

Impulse control is key to appropriate behavior regulation. Introducing techniques like the above, especially those that incorporate touch or other non-verbal cues, acknowledge a child’s needs and challenges while increasing self-awareness and expanding the range of behavior modulations available to them. 

Give your child the ability to choose and set goals

“What toy do you want to play with now?” 

“Which of these two outfits would you like to wear tomorrow?”

“Do you want cream cheese or peanut butter on your sandwich?”

Giving children the ability to choose strengthens their belief that they can control their external environment – and their internal one. It also gives children experience working through the decision-making process in their brains, strengthening cognitive regulation. 

Choice is also an opportunity to teach responsibility for your choices. If your child comes back later and wants the other option, by telling the child it was his choice and he must therefore stick with it, he learns to realize and accept the power of the decision he made.

Being choosy

At its heart, behavioral regulation is the power to choose: to choose your actions, to choose your responses, to choose how the world will perceive you. 

The quote “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it” (Charles Swindoll) expresses the extent and the importance of the power of choice in shaping your life.  

Let us do what we can to boost our children’s power in this area. Let us help them to improve their regulation and their ability to choose productive, life-enhancing reactions to the situations that they – and we – face every day.

A version of this post appeared as an article in The Wellspring magazine.

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