This book will help you:
- Understand the domains of stress that may contribute to your child’s acting out
- Soothe your child and teach them how to soothe themselves when overwhelmed
I knew I would love this book after reading the first paragraph: “I have never seen a bad kid, only children who are stressed out and having difficulty self-regulating.” Dr. Shanker encourages parents to differentiate between misbehavior and distressed behavior. Misbehavior is when a child knows he is doing something wrong and can give an explanation. Misbehavior may be managed with behavior-modification techniques. In contrast, distressed behavior is more involuntary, triggered by stressors. Distressed behavior cannot be controlled by simply telling a child to calm down, when they are having difficulty identifying what has worked them up to begin with. Distressed behavior would benefit from being treated with love, compassion, and empathy, instead of discipline.
Reframing a child’s acting out as a distressed behavior instead of misbehavior helps parents be more compassionate and less reactive when confronted with difficult behavior. Dr. Shanker discusses the difference between self-regulation and self-control. Many believe that self-control is the ultimate way to manage emotions and behavior, and feel that if one cannot control themselves, they are deficient. However, “self-control is about inhibiting impulses; self-regulation is about identifying the causes and reducing the intensity of impulses and, when necessary, having the energy to resist.”
Often, a child’s acting out may look like misbehavior, or “not listening,” tantrumming, etc., but it is really an alert that the child is stressed out. Similarly, you might notice yourself get crankier when you are hungry or tired, and you may feel like you are running on empty and are more likely to lash out. Dr. Shanker teaches parents to ask themselves “why now?” in response to distressed behavior, in order to notice a child’s patterns and their triggers. If a child is stressed out, they are more likely to act out, and in turn have difficulty dealing with further stressors the rest of the day. Our bodies and minds can be compared to an engine, where there are signals given when the engine is running out of gas and it is time for a refill. In the same way, negative emotions, thoughts, and behaviors are also signals that our bodies or minds may be running close to empty and need a recharge. Energy is a finite but replenishing resource, and gets depleted when dealing with daily stressors. For each individual, these stressors can be different, such as too much noise, light, or social interaction. With each portion of energy used, there is less to be used for the next stressor, until it is replenished. Parents can help their children tune into their bodies, their personal triggers, and their modes of recovery. Dr. Shanker discusses how anger can be a very scary emotion for parents and children. When a child acts out or expresses an intense negative emotion, it is naturally very hard for a parent to stay calm in the face of this behavior. However, this serves to exacerbate the intense emotions and does not allow for the best self-regulation teaching opportunity.
Self-regulation and stress come from five domains, as delineated by Dr. Shanker. The physical domain includes things like sleep, eating, noises, smells, sights, heat, and cold. The emotional domain includes abilities such as having the language to identify positive and negative emotions and being able to manage them when they get overwhelming or intense. An emotional stressor may be new or confusing emotions. The cognitive domain includes stressors such as having difficulty processing sensory input, which may cause an attention deficit due to too much information presented. The social domain includes abilities such as adapting behavior in social situations, and relationship skills. For some children, socializing may be a stressor, or experiencing or witnessing conflict with peers. The prosocial domain includes higher-order abilities such as shifting between their own interests to another’s, or having empathy. A prosocial stressor may be having to deal with others’ strong emotions. You can think about whether you notice any of these being a pattern with your own child and how to help them recover daily.
I found this book to be compassionate and comprehensive in teaching parents how to help their children self-regulate. Self-regulation is an all-encompassing issue that affects every minute of how we live our lives. Learning about yourself and your child’s patterns of stress and regulation can improve attention, mood, and abilities. This book is so useful and has led me to increased insight on my own journey toward self-regulation.
Eta Feuerman-Yaeger, LMSW is a psychotherapist who works with children, adults, and groups, with offices in Queens and Brooklyn. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.