In pediatric therapy, we often discuss the importance of self-regulation. What IS “self-regulation”? And how do we help our children gain this skill? What can I do at home?
When children play and grow, they are learning how to be, how to react, and how NOT to be. They perform an action and receive positive or negative feedback. Then learning takes place. For example, if I don’t watch where I’m going, I may trip or walk into something. Or, in the case of social skills, a child will learn to wait her turn when playing with peers or else they will be angry with her. Children are also in the process of learning how to hold their emotions in check and not explode at the “small stuff.” That’s a hard one, especially if you have hypersensitivities that cause you to react to stimuli that don’t seem to bother others, such as loud noises or getting a haircut. In this same way, we also learn to take care of our bodies, to get it what it needs, but to do so in a socially acceptable manner. We learn how to regulate ourselves be that avoiding what bothers us or seeking out what comforts and calms us. And we learn how not to “lose it.”
In therapy, we are working on the goal of self-regulation from a couple of angles. Firstly, we address the child’s nervous system and help him mature and make positive changes in areas of difficulty. We gently expose him to that which irritates him and causes him frustration. We work on motor skills and self-care skills and help him gain a better understanding of his body and further his development. We may use such methods as sound therapy or home program exercises that are geared personally towards your family’s needs by your occupational therapist. Secondly, we work from a psychosocial point of view, modeling speech and behavior, helping and coaching a child to work through difficult experiences. We also train in the skills needed for social situations, giving your child the practice they often need to handle peer and family relations. Some children are appropriate for our Buddy Group classes where they can learn these skills together, guided by a therapist.
So, what can you do at home? The first thing is to understand what your child is dealing with, and communication with your therapist is crucial to this. Your child most likely is not trying to just gain attention or trying to be naughty or a pain. Most of the kids we treat honestly cannot help overreacting to all kinds of things. Aside from the neurological immaturity they may be experiencing, they also might be very unaware of how their reactions can affect others. They may be so impulsive that they act or speak without thinking beforehand about the consequences or effect that will have.
Aside from understanding what your child is dealing with and following through with the home program from your therapist, you can help her learn about her reactions. You can give labels in a calm manner so she knows that what she is feeling is frustration or anger or confusion. For example, “You feel angry because you wanted the other color.” A quiet calm spot in your home is a great thing for all children and can contain things like a beanbag chair, blankets, pillows, books and other quiet items that help comfort your children. A big hug or jumping up and down are calming and organizing. Yoga and breathing techniques can be terrific to teach children how to regulate themselves. Your therapist may teach your child the Zones of Regulation, and you can reinforce that at home as well. Whatever you employ, make a note of what seems to work so you can suggest it another time as your child learns how to self-calm.
One of the best techniques is always going to be modeling the behavior you wish to see. Even when they don’t seem to be listening, our kids are very aware and learn from us. When we respond back in a calm together manner, naming the child’s frustration or mood and validating his thoughts, WE keep it together better and can start to help defuse the situation. The child can be guided towards that which calms him. Between the techniques the OT wants you to do at home, and the positive changes your child will make during therapy, he will learn how to manage himself better with more control and confidence. He will learn to self-regulate.