Self-regulation for the holidays |

Self-regulation for the holidays

Know & Go

WHAT: Nurturing Parenting, for parents of children ages 2-12

WHEN: Jan. 21 – March 10, 2020. Tuesdays, 5:30 – 7:30 p.m. (8 weeks of class)

WHERE: Ready Springs Elementary School, 10862 Spenceville Rd., Penn Valley

COST: $35/person includes 8 weeks of class, childcare activities and pizza

REGISTER: Call 530-268-5086

During the holidays, many parents wish for a compliant, well-behaved child. Can we PLEASE have a happy holiday, just for the next two hours?

Instead, this can be a stressful time for both parents and children. With understanding of child development and practice strategies in hand, parents can increase the chances of a more joyful holiday season.


Cooperation takes self-regulation, which is the ability to internally manage disruptive emotions and impulses. This can be a complex skill to master.

Over time, a child can learn to feel and experience emotions without leading with them – and respond more with choice rather than impulse.

Delayed gratification, risk assessment, cause and effect as well as skills in attention, memory, oral language, and socialization are categories in which learning must occur for impulse control to increase. The road to this maturity is fraught with big emotions and deep frustration as children are often helpless to react other than on impulse due to their development.

Kids come into this world hard-wired to resist their parent’s agenda. Resistance is one of the reasons that toddlerhood (and teen years) get nicknamed The Terribles. It is a natural, developmental reaction to parent’s suggestions, requests, rules or discipline – and can throw parents way off course.

By their very nature, impulses to resist come unexpectedly and unbidden, from the mind’s unconscious. Running away from the parent in the grocery store, grabbing the dog’s tail – and eventually slamming doors or coming home past curfew – are examples of the brain’s undeveloped regulatory circuitry, which matures slowly.

For instance, young children (and teens) are often unable to imagine someone else’s point of view. A child won’t think about how taking a toy may hurt his friend’s feelings. A teen may scream hurtful words at her parents without thinking how they land.

Parental guidance can help the child develop positive relationship connection and empathy. Physically guiding the child’s hands or a parent’s firm “no” stand in for a not yet fully functioning dorsal-fronto-median cortex – or the control center of the brain. As the child grows and the circuitry matures, the “no” becomes internalized and there is more capacity to control an impulse.

Practice Makes Possible

What if you were told how to drive a stick shift and then without any practice, off you went? The timing of shifting is tricky. You might end up stripping the clutch or doing some other damage.

The idea of driving without preparation or practice would seem crazy. Yet, we often expect our children to cooperate without a chance to practice what they are being told. Many parents think, “I’ve told my child. Now they should be able to do the new behavior.”

Repetitive practice and positive learning strategies establish neural connections between survival instinct impulses and the executive brain’s understanding of limits and boundaries. It’s like trampling a new path in a field of wheat – it takes more than one trip through the field to make that path.

Parents often hold a small child’s hands as he learns to walk. They do this over and over, helping him practice, until he is ready to let go. Do the same with self-regulation. Give your child many chances to practice a new behavior – such as using an inside voice instead of yelling – so he can move from impulse to choice to internalization.

Practice has the benefit of stopping your child’s world. This allows the child to slow down, really understand what is expected, and make a more conscious choice.

Practice Strategies

The following strategies can help children find a greater sense of mastery over their emotional environment:

Two Choices. It’s not safe for your child to throw the ball inside as something could easily get broken. Give your child two choices that work for you. “You can roll the ball inside or we can go outside and throw it together.” Or for your teen: “You can put in a full tank of gas or rake the leaves before you take the car tonight.” Your child gets to pick one, giving her some much-needed personal control.  There is a chance to learn cooperation rather than be coerced or punished into “good behavior.”

Be sparing and discerning. Try not to give too many choices too often. This can get stressful for young children and even send them into overwhelm and frustration. Try not to over-talk as this can feel like browbeating.

Visuals. Use visuals and pictures to help your child understand what you are teaching. White boards are great for this. Draw or write out ideas as you brainstorm together, either to solve a problem or help bring about a new behavior. Circle two new ideas that you both agree upon. Practice these throughout the week. Check back in with the board as a reminder.

Honor Emotions. If your child has a big emotion around a change or a choice, honor his emotions and help the child feel understood. Check your own emotions. If you are in a calm, emotional state you will be more effective at communication. Our children are like photocopy scanners. They often replicate our emotional state, so work on your own self-regulation.

Show Me. After teaching your child a new behavior, say, “Show me what you’ve learned.” Ask her to show you how she brushes her own teeth before bed. Not only does she want to please you and gain your attention, but this puts the learning responsibility in her hands. For a teen, you can ask him to show you that he’s able to come home at the agreed upon time.

Holiday Practice

Now is a great time to start practicing holiday expectations. Let’s say you want your child to ask before touching items at a relative’s house. Use visuals to teach the desired behavior. Then take the time to do a role-play or game using the new behavior. Practice several times before the big visit.

Over time, a child can learn to feel and experience emotions without leading with them – and respond more with choice rather than impulse. The ability to increase one’s self-control and cooperation are the external signs that these circuits are developing as they should. You can all share in how good it feels to do this.

Enjoy this learning time with your child. And Happy Holidays!

Annie Keeling, MFA, is the Parenting Specialist for Nevada County Superintendent of Schools. She teaches parenting classes throughout the year. Contact Annie to find the next class near you: or 530-268-5086.

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