Contributed by Jody McVittie, MD
We all have our own “awful parent/child” moments. I have bags full of them. They include: a high melodrama, l o o n g tantrum at the Alderwood Mall in the crowds of holiday shoppers (I was sure all my patients were watching!), some particularly hurtful sibling wars, and an argument with my child that ended up with both of us feeling bad in our respective rooms followed by a very negative parenting “report card” that was slipped under my door. These were times when I was clearly not at my best. They were also times when my children were not able to organize their own bodies and nervous systems to be able to handle the situation in a way that felt good to them. It isn’t useful or appropriate to expect perfection from our selves or our children (we will all lose it on occasion) but we can help them gain the skills to self regulate. How???
Children (and all of us) do better when they feel better. Our culture tends to want to “teach” children who are misbehaving by having them feel worse “so they’ll learn not to do it again.” We forget that if the child had felt included, important, or weren’t so tired or hungry she likely would have handled the situation well to begin with. Instead of teaching by hurting the goal of a time-in is to help our child learn how to regain their “better” sense of self so that she can come back to the situation and meet the challenge. With practice, children get better at “re-gathering” by themselves. Remember, this kind of “feeling better” is not happiness – it is a sense of being able to respond (be response-able) from a centered place.
Helping them create a time-in space. A time-in space is a place your child can go to feel better; to find her better self before coming back to try again. Do this at a time when she is not upset. It can be a place she can listen to some music, draw or simply cuddle up and feel better. Some families get elaborate and decorate a corner. Some children choose a cozy spot under a table or on a soft chair. You can role-play some situations and so she gets practice calming down.
Time-in with a young child. For a young child this can be as simple as temporarily moving her to another focus. “I can tell you are upset. You will be able to handle this when you feel better. Would you like to come read with me for a few minutes? (Cut up bananas for dinner? Play with water in the sink while I cook?) Then you can come back and solve the problem.”
“I need a hug.” Asking for a hug from your child is an invitation to reconnect. A nice long hug can be a powerful way for her to reconnect and return to her better self.
Remember development. The ability to self-regulate grows as our brain develops. The prefrontal cortex where we manage our self-regulation isn’t fully developed until age 25. Your 3 year-old cannot calm herself as well as your 6 year-old or as well as adults.
Increasing awareness. To be able to self regulate children need to be aware of their bodies and their emotions. Games like, “Where are your elbows?” and teaching words for feelings helps children notice and make meaning of their sensations in a useful way.
Modeling. Modeling self-regulation with emotional honesty helps our children learn.
Connection. Sometimes just naming the feeling and the problem is enough for a child to help herself come back. “Ooh, you look mad. The blocks fell when the building was almost done.”
Connection and correction. “You look mad and disappointed, and it isn’t okay to throw things in the house.”
Jane Nelsen’s book, Positive Time Out, is a great resource for more “Time in” ideas.
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