In order for children to be able to regulate their own stress levels, they need to have had this experience from an adult. Babies are unable to regulate their own stress and they depend on their caregivers to regulate it for them. For example, when a baby cries because they are hungry, tired or upset and the adult responds with love and concern, this helps to reduce the baby’s stress. If a crying baby is ignored or met with anxiety or hostility, it can increase their stress. The way the adult responds to this stress can either help the child to develop their own stress regulatory system, or create even more stress and prevent this development taking place. If the child gets what they need from an adult then a pattern develops that allows the child to begin to manage stress for themselves.
Depending on a child’s experiences, by the age of three they may be beginning to understand some of the feelings they are experiencing, but are unlikely to have developed much impulse control. Therefore, if they want something they will often take action to get it such as snatching from other children. The concept of delayed gratification is a particularly difficult one for children of this age to understand; they want things immediately and may express strong reactions, such as raging tantrums, when being asked to wait for things. It is a natural stage of children’s development that they are egocentric up to about the age of four, depending on their experiences, and therefore it is very hard for them to see anything from another person’s perspective i.e. ‘Why would I want to give someone else a sweet when I can keep it for myself?’ They may find it hard to understand why they can’t have what they want when they want it and become stressed and agitated, making this behaviour particularly hard to manage in school, where they may be several children who behave in this way. It can be useful and help children’s emotional development if adults respond to children’s stress in a way that calms and soothes them rather than exacerbates their stress.
Strategies to help children to self-regulate:
- Respond to the intensity of what the child is feeling and reinforce this with an affirming tone of voice and facial expression, for example, ‘It made you furious that you couldn’t be at the front of the line today.’
- Validate the child’s experience; it is very real for them so ensure they feel you are taking it seriously, for example, ‘When Sam called you stupid it must have really hurt.’
- Support the child by helping them to find alternative ways to express their feelings if appropriate, for example, ‘It’s never ok to hit people Michael, we need to find other ways that you can have your feelings and not hurt anyone when you have them.’
- Provide a calm and reassuring approach so the child feels you are affirming them and accepting rather than dismissing their feelings, for example, ‘It can be really difficult when you want to have the red pen and someone else is already using it.’
- Use regular opportunities during the school day to comment on children’s non verbal signs of emotion, for example, ‘I can see you look a bit cross about having to wait your turn.’