A lesson in self-regulation
On our way to school I can see my 6yo, dressed as Mario for World Book Day (complete with giant hat and moustache), hurtling down the steep hill on his scooter, on the busy main road, much faster than usual. He seems wobbly, a bit like a caravan about to jack-knife on the motorway. He’s too far ahead to hear me if I call him and I feel a rush of fear.
My mind flashes images of him going under a bus at my subconscious, as I calmly tell my 10yo his brother is scaring me and ask him to go catch up with him on his scooter, which is much faster than I am. Just as I finish the sentence, little one goes out of sight around a bend and I hear a scream…
I start running down the hill, panicked in case he has landed in the road. Thankfully he’s on the pavement, however he’s in a crying heap. Now I know that it’s not a serious incident, my instinct is to yell at him for going too fast, too far ahead and behaving dangerously. I quell the desire to shout - all my studying of parenting and psychology has taught me that the rush of adrenaline from having just been in fight or flight mode is what is driving my need to let off steam and what my crying, hurt, scared child needs right now, is for me to be calm and reassuring.
I pick him up and hug him tight while he screams at the top of his lungs. He screams about how his costume, ripped on both knees, has been ruined. He screams about how much he hates his scooter. He screams about how much his injured knees hurt. I do not worry about what people walking past us might think of this angry outburst, as I might have done when 10yo was this age, as I know this would distract me from attending to his needs. I just hold him while he screams and yells a lot, realising he is also in fight or flight mode.
I say very little, aware that any attempts to reassure at this point are futile. A child who has lost control of their emotions is unable to hear reason. They can’t hear much at all as they are overwhelmed by their feelings. So, instead of words, I use the non-verbal communication we used when he was a baby and needed to be calmed… a close hug, soothing sounds such as “mmmmmm” and “I know”, and the regulating rhythm of my own breath, to transfer my calmness into him.
Once the screaming has turned to sobs, he has calmed down enough to be able to hear me. We start to talk about what happened. It turns out he had a problem with the brake on the scooter and was trying to slow down but couldn’t. I am glad I didn’t shout at him.
We turn around and go back home, have a biscuit and a drink, wipe the tears away, patch up the knees and conjure up a new costume. We arrive at school late after the gates have closed, go through the office, explain he had an accident, and he went in happy.
I feel good about the way this story played out. I think he’s learned that accidents happen, he’s not stupid or to blame, therefore doesn’t need to feel ashamed. That’s a good lesson, as shame is a very damaging emotion. He’s learned that it’s OK to be late if you have a fair reason and he’s observed how to explain why he’s late politely and clearly. He’s learned broken things can be fixed, and that sometimes when it’s all going wrong, a favourite biscuit and a cuddle will help. Probably the most important thing I’d like to think he has learned though, is that if disaster strikes and he loses control of his emotions (because from his point of view, this was a complete disaster), he has the power within to calm himself down and start exploring different solutions.
I realise this calm and collected approach comes naturally to some people, however it’s taken me years of studying parenting, child development and child psychology to reach the point where something like this can happen and I come away feeling proud of the way I handled it! I thought I would share in case someone, somewhere, finds it as useful as I have.
If our child has an accident or a near miss we can see coming a mile off and we feel a surge of fear that rapidly turns to anger… we can recognise the adrenaline surges of being in fight or flight mode, ignore what passers-by think, hug our child, transfer our calmness into them, attend to their needs… and we will be passing on really important self-regulation skills that they will take with them into the future.
With love x