Self-regulation Matters

Contributed by Jody McVittie, MD

But she KNOWS better! Why does she act this way? How many times have you thought this, said it or listened to another parent share their frustration this way? And when you reflect on it, how many times have you noticed, reflecting back on one of your not-so-wonderful parenting moments that indeed YOU knew better? Join the club.

Why is it that we can’t always do what we know would be the “right” thing to do? The answer is interesting. It turns out that our ability to self-regulate, to control our impulses and to delay gratification gets tired. When our brains are stressed (we have been working hard, we are tired, hungry, worried or stressed for another reason) we are less able to do what we “should” do. So what is a parent to do?

• Understand that stress impacts our ability to function well. It doesn’t make inappropriate behaviors (yours or theirs) okay but it will help you recognize triggers (yours and theirs) and learn what kinds of things will help to prevent the problem.

Model. Take stress breaks. You can take a time out, take a few deep breaths, change course or spend a few minutes connecting, reading or playing with your children.

Begin to pay attention to your own stress level and model what you do to calm down.
The ability to self-regulate and delay gratification grows with practice and can be taught. Tools for increasing self-control include:

Imaginative play. When children play imaginative games together where they construct their own rules about who does what they grow their ability to think forward, anticipate outcomes and creatively solve problems.

Developing a set of strategies. In the famous “marshmallow experiment” children were given a marshmallow and told that if they could wait and not eat it until the experimenter returned they could have two marshmallows. Only about 30% of 4 year olds were able to wait 15 minutes. When the children were taught strategies like, “Pretend it is just a picture of a marshmallow surrounded by a frame,” children who had not been able to wait learned how to wait.

Practice problem solving with your children. “When we go to the dentist, we may have to wait for a long time. What can we do or bring with us to make that easier?” Asking them to think ahead and imagine scenarios helps them learn to do it for themselves.

Do your best to stay calm. When adults stay calm and self-regulate children’s brains learn too. Their mirror-neurons pick up what is going on for us and it teaches them how to do it – wordlessly. (Obviously this doesn’t happen overnight!)

Self-control and the ability to delay gratification matters. It is highly correlated with success later in life: academic, social, and professional. The 4 year olds who participated in the marshmallow experiment have now been studied for 30 years. Those who could delay gratification at age 4 lead very different lives than those who could not.

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