Parents can help child learn to self-regulate


Q. My 8-year-old son is driving me crazy. He doesn’t take no for an answer. I try to stay calm, but I always yell, lose control, and make things worse. Then I feel guilty and give in to him. What can I do to stop my behavior and help him to control his?

A. One of the hottest topics in psychology for the past few decades has been emotional regulation. In the 1960s, Walter Mischel, a psychologist from Stanford University, devised “the marshmallow test” to determine a child’s ability to self-regulate. In the experiment, children were placed in a room with one marshmallow. They were told that they could eat the marshmallow, or they could wait 15 minutes and receive another one. The children who waited for the second marshmallow made better grades and were more likely to continue their education in the years that followed. Because self-control is so important for future success, this experiment is still being conducted to gauge a child’s ability to self-regulate.

What researchers have found is that many children who lack self-control have learned that “no” does not mean”no.” It means to escalate. They believe that if they cry, scream or have a tantrum, their parent will eventually acquiesce. Many parents, out of embarrassment or fatigue, will give in to their demands. The child has now learned that bad behavior brings the desired result.

You should not yell, belittle or criticize your son. Instead, wait for both of you to calm down. You can choose to discuss the situation immediately or wait until you feel more in control. Listen with empathy. This does not mean giving him approval for his behavior, but understanding why he acted as he did. Lastly, map out a plan so that the behavior does not continue. An excellent resource on self-regulation is Getting to Calm by Laura S. Kastner, Ph.D. and Jennifer Wyatt, Ph.D. I highly recommend it for all parents struggling with these issues.

Q. My 10-year-old is asking questions about sex. Isn’t she too young to absorb the information? I don’t want to encourage her.

A. A 10-year-old is certainly not too young to learn about sex. It is the parent’s responsibility to fully inform children, or they will learn misinformation from television, music lyrics, movies and their peers. Sex should not be presented as titillating, dirty or frightening.

Only you can fully ascertain your daughter’s level of maturity. Therefore, it is important for you to understand the questions she is asking, and be sensitive in the way you answer. If she is asking a simple question, you do not want to give her an hour lecture on sex education that is beyond her level of comprehension. If she is ready for a serious discussion, you should first stress the importance of building a relationship and love, not just the physical aspects of sex.

It is important to warn your daughter about the dangers of peer pressure regarding sexual activity. The number one reason that girls engage in sex is to earn approval of their girlfriends, not to please their boyfriend. Try to be certain that your daughter is involved in more wholesome activities, and not associating with a group that is pressuring her to become sexually active.

Just because you explain information about sex and contraception to her, it does not mean that she will have sex earlier. However, if she does decide to be sexually involved, you have helped protect her from possible sexually transmitted diseases or an unwanted pregnancy.There are many excellent websites available, such asmayoclinic.com, that will be helpful as you negotiate this difficult minefield.

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Nancy Ryburn holds a doctorate degree in psychology from Yeshiva University in New York City where she maintained a private practice. She now teaches psychology at Southeast Arkansas College. E-mail your questions to drnryburn@gmail.com. The questions will not be answered personally, but could appear in a future column. There will be no identifying information and all e-mails remain confidential.