by Dr. Laura Kastner, Ph.D.
One of the hottest topics in clinical psychology these days is what we psychologists call “emotional regulation” You might know it as “self control” or “emotion management” and understand that it’s important, because without it, kids would not be able to handle disappointments, follow rules and adapt to upsetting circumstances—and neither would we!
Dealing effectively with negative emotions is important for kids. It helps them deal with mean peers, painful break-ups, and unfairness or misunderstandings.
Self control is a powerful predictor of future success. Young children who can control their impulses and delay gratification end up having better lives and becoming big achievers.
How do kids develop this wonderful skill? Effective emotion management is partly determined by genetics, but a lot depends on what happens in that most intimate, important and labor-intensive relationship with parents. So let’s start with the parent part of the equation.
We like to focus on the loving times we spend with our kids, but let’s face it, we all lose it sometimes. Everybody has tempers that flare and buttons that get pushed—some more than others—and it causes neurons to fire in the most primitive part of the brain (called the “amygdala”). That’s why parents often start acting and sounding like children themselves!
“Flooding” occurs when people get anxious, fearful, or angry. They report that they “lost it” (their mind, temporarily), “melted down” (like a nuclear reactor), and “hit the wall”(and they might have). Brain scientists call this an “amygdala hijack,” which is an apt term, since the emotional brain truly does ambush your thinking brain (the “prefrontal cortex”) and holds it hostage until you cool off.
This hijack is why good parents end up yelling, criticizing, swearing, belittling and threatening, even though we all know that communicating this way doesn’t help us get through to our kids — and can hurt our relationship.
What’s a good parent to do? Try the C.A.L.M. approach:
- C—Cool down (get your heart rate down, self soothe, breathe deeply).
- A—Assess your options (What are the strengths and weaknesses of various approaches
you might take for patching up the spat and problem solving? Talk now or later?
This step automatically engages the prefrontal cortex so that good judgments can be
made right after the cool down).
- L—Listen with empathy (When re-engaging your child, acknowledge your child’s
feelings first, without any “but’s”. Empathy doesn’t mean approval or agreement,
but it does open up communication channels).
- M—Map a plan (Use your calm and wise mind to figure out realistic goals and how to reach them).
You’ll need to role model this hundreds – maybe even thousands! — of times before you can expect your kids to do the same! Read more about it here.