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Self regulation during self isolation

The past few months have seen enormous changes to everyone’s routines, levels of patience and tolerance and of course with this has come a shift in family dynamics and the behaviour people are seeing in their homes. COVID -19 has forced us to be in close proximity within our homes and also learn to do without some of our most basic support systems. This includes school, grandparents, play dates and even parks.

The result of this for many families has been an increase in meltdowns from their children, a decrease in civility of how they are talking to one another, a lack of children listening to their parents and a breakdown in regular communication as everyone is in each other’s way for much of the day. Whilst the immediate cause may be the lockdown, the internal cause for each person is a lowering of their ability to self regulate.

Self-regulation is our ability to manage sensations, emotions, thinking and behaviours in response to our environment and what is happening around us at any given time. This can include managing our emotional reactions, adjusting changes in expectations and our ability to calm ourselves. Our main goal is to adjust our level of alertness and respond in socially adaptive ways.

There are three components that depend on one another to enable a person to successfully self regulate.

These include:

  • Sensory processing: the process where we take in, organise and integrate input from our environment and the choices we make with our behaviours in response to this input.
  • Executive functioning: the cognitive process where we control our thoughts and actions
  • Emotional regulation: The ability to control our emotions

There are therefore many reasons why a child is not regulating to the best of their ability. One of these at the moment, is that we as adults are also shorter tempered, more anxious, feeling as though we are juggling more and may not be giving the best of ourselves. Although it may seem impossible, it is important that we as adults are able to model the self-control and self-regulation we so readily expect from our children through our own actions and words we say. Some family conversations around what is happening and what the current expectations are can be very helpful with this. Children are in tune with our own personal emotional states, and can often mimic and magnify the emotions that we may project onto them, such as angry, worried, overwhelmed and anxious. It is therefore important to model a calm state of ‘being’ around them. Verbalising the realities in a way that is not confronting or scary can help children (and adults) feel more in control and lead to less meltdowns and blow ups. Be honest about the frustrations and difficulties of the lockdown, allow children to talk about what they miss about school and acknowledge to them that you are finding your new working pattern a challenge!

During this time we want to support our children to better manage their strong reactions and feelings and find positive ways to express their emotions and physical needs to ensure positive outcomes and behaviours wherever possible. Here are some other tips and ideas to help promote the best self regulation for the whole family!

VISUAL SCHEDULES: While today, time at home can look different to our usual routines it is important to replicate our new ‘norm’ in each individual household. This will look different for everyone and possibly even for each member of the family. Creating a visual schedule or timetable for the day can help to input some predictability into a child’s day and a way that we can bring in self regulation opportunities for our children to better engage. Visual schedules at their most simple are a way to be able to see at a glance what activities are being done that day. It is really no different to a to do list except that it is in order. Despite the lack of routine at the moment, there are some things that are certain and that we are all doing every day e.g.: eating breakfast, getting dressed; work time / home school/ lunch/ having a shower. All of these things should be included on the schedule and it should be personalised as far as possible for each family member. Depending what is needed for your child in terms of calm time or time for sensory activities, they can be included here as well. You can involve your children in the creation of their schedule by theming it with their favourite characters or by getting them to help with ideas of what they do each day or would like to do.

CREATING SPACE AND CALM: When we think of using up energy and calming our body we often think of it as fast pace movement but providing down time can be just a powerful for our children. We are often expected to be on the go all the time, and if we are placing too many expectations on them, this can lead to meltdowns. These meltdowns often have no obvious trigger or are described as “losing it over nothing” or having a disproportionate response to the stimuli around them. Creating a physical and mental break from the environment around them is one way to do this. Examples of good downtime activities may include – watching a calming show with headphones and no one else physically present; doing a craft activity; spending some time exploring the garden with no set tasks or playing with a toy or construction game they enjoy. This time should be as free from interruptions as possible and should be a time for them to have some headspace and gather their thoughts. Other activities and ways to include this could be dim lighting, lower volume and limit auditory input (listen to auditory book or playing relaxation music), engaging in quiet activities such as books, or stickers.

USE OF TIMERS: Many of the regulation issues that parents are facing often come from managing time expectations or during transitions. Timers that a child can see and hear can help navigate this. There are many different kinds of visuals including sand timers or older kids being able to tell the time on a clock. Sometimes however, the most effective can be setting an alarm on the phone or even the device they are on and helping them take ownership of it. Timers can be used well either to limit an activity that needs boundaries, to frame an activity you child is reluctant to do as to allow for breaks across the day during online learning.

PROMOTING PATIENCE AND MIDFULNESS: being able to teach our children the importance of slowing down within their environment. This can be practicing deep breathing using visuals such as a windmill to blow, yoga poses, or taking in nature outdoors. This can also be practiced in real time family interactions by asking them to wait if you are busy doing something and they want your attention. It is beneficial for them to learn that they can wait patiently until you are finished. A visual to represent time can be helpful in this situation.

CREATING OPPORTUNITIES FOR EXERCISE: The effect that physical movement has on our mental and physical well being is well documented but easy to forget and hard to plan for when most children’s usual physical activities such as weekend and after school sports are on hold. These ideas can be incorporated into a visual schedule to make sure your children are getting the physical inputs they need. If you have a trampoline or other play equipment in your garden, this can be an easy way to entertain your children for a short period of time. Obstacle courses whether inside or outside can also be fun as can drawing movement paths with chalk outside (e.g. jump over the lines, walk on the line, hop into the boxes). An indoor version could be playing hop scotch using post it notes for feet to land on).

Promoting some of these ideas now and building positive routines will allow your children to feel that not all that defines normal has disappeared. Hopefully this in turn will lead to better self regulation and a more manageable household! Many of these ideas can be incorporated into life after lockdown and will help to ensure a smooth transition from this difficult time into the months ahead as life slowly returns to normal.

Ilana Klein is an experienced Occupational Therapist running Kids Achieve, a Paediatric Private Practice. Ilana focuses on creating a fun and safe environment for children where they can engage in learning activities and play, enabling them to develop the skills and confidence they need to successfully participate in everyday life. Ilana has a passion for empowering children of all ages to be the best they can be, running group programs, supportive intervention and professional mentoring and consulting for families and schools.

Ilana can be contacted at [email protected] or connect with us directly through Facebook and Instagram @kidsachieveOT

Ariella Lew is a highly qualified paediatric nurse and Director of Kids on Track Consultancy, a private practice based in Melbourne. Ariella consults both locally and overseas, providing expert advice and management strategies for families requiring support with their childs behavior, sleep and toilet training and family dynamics as well as providing strategies and advice for families of children with special needs.

Find out more at Facebook: @kidsontrackconsultancy or contact Ariella directly on [email protected]

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young girl upset in front of her toys

Meet Ariella Lew

The Founder and Director of Kids on Track Consultancy and a qualified paediatric nurse. Ariella offers expert advice and management strategies to families locally and worldwide, specialising in behaviour and development support for children. With extensive experience in parenting guidance, including areas like disability and chronic illness, Ariella collaborates with schools and allied health professionals to create personalised plans. Leading a dedicated team, she ensures families receive optimal support, including assistance with accessing the NDIS.

Ariella’s compassionate approach empowers families to navigate challenges confidently, providing tailored solutions for their unique needs.

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