This means that we need to focus on being present without being pushy and being ready to offer comfort when or if it is needed. Giving our child their space to try and self-soothe is essential, but letting him know that we are here if needed is equally essential. If we walk away from him in a huff, we simply add to his distress, lowering the likelihood of him being able to self-soothe, but also taking away the safe place he has grown to know and rely upon. If we jump in and try to force him to take our comfort instead of trying on his own to calm, then we are telling him that he is incapable of this task, lowering his self-esteem and sense of trust in himself as to when to try new things.
The middle ground is simply being there. I often recommend to people to let their child know you’re there verbally and to be in a spot where she can see you if needs be. It may mean putting whatever you were doing or going to do on hold for a while as you sit by and wait for her to come to you, but this is part of what helping our children develop their independence – and in this case, self-soothing – looks like. You may end up waiting 2 minutes, it may be 30, but being there and ready is essential.
What happens after?
This will likely depend on the degree of success that your child has had in self-soothing.
If your child couldn’t soothe and had to come to you, you should first and foremost focus on the act of soothing and comforting.
Once she is calm, it is important that you acknowledge her efforts in self-soothing in a positive way and let her know that sometimes it is hard to calm down on our own and that you’ll always be there when that’s the case. If your child was successful, she will still likely come to you after. This is the moment you can acknowledge her efforts and success while still letting her know that you’re always there if sometimes she needs a little help calming down.
How do I talk to my kids about their efforts?
Sometimes, our issue as parents is how to talk about these high-level concepts with kids in a way they understand. Talking about “self-soothing” or “emotion regulation” is clearly not the way to talk about it. Some families find success talking about having some time alone to calm down or just because one wants some time alone. Some families find success talking about having one’s own space, or special space, to go to when one needs it. However you discuss it with your child, you just need to make sure it’s in words and using constructs that he will understand and that you can incorporate into your daily lives. This incorporation will make it easier for him to think of his efforts first when in mild-moderate distress and being aware of how others use their own private time or space to calm down too. Modeling our self-soothing is often even more effective than simply discussing it with our kids.
Of course, as mentioned above, one of the critical elements of discussion is finding the fine line of acknowledging and supporting their efforts while making it clear that you are there when necessary. Parents can get too caught up in over-praising the effort which can make the child feel as though they have to do this self-soothing thing each and every time, even when they may not be ready. Obviously no one wants that.
Remember: Emotion regulation is an ongoing process that our children will be learning for years.
It starts with simply seeking us out and then eventually trying some skills on their own, but even us adults need help now and again. Expecting too much or too little will only pose problems in the long-run. Follow your children’s lead and know that they will get there in their own time.
An important note: This type of self-soothing practice can also be reflective of the following:
- Sensory issues. Children who struggle with sensory overload may seek to run away to remove the stimulation.
- Developmental differences. Other developmental differences, such as Autism Spectrum Disorders, can also present with these behaviours.
- Insecure attachment. Insecure attachment can manifest in a child being resistant to comfort, starting in infancy and continuing on into the toddler and preschool years.
Unfortunately we may not know the entire reasons for why our children are this way, but know that if you are a responsive, caring parent, #3 is unlikely to be the reason.
Originally published here.
Tracy Cassels, PhD is the Director of Evolutionary Parenting, a science-based, attachment-oriented resource for families on a variety of parenting issues. In addition to her online resources, she offers one-on-one support to families around the world and is regularly asked to speak on a variety of issues from sleep to tantrums at conferences and in the media. She lives in Prince Edward County, Ontario, Canada with her husband and two children.