In My Own Words: The Top 25 Things Self-Reg has Taught Me 

Self-Reg for parents, photo of man and son sitting on the grass together

When I started writing for TMC I saw my niche as helping people fit Self-Reg and some of the science behind it into the real world of what we already know (and think we know) from various experiences and sources. And I wanted to explore these ideas in everyday language accessible to lots of people, including those who knew nothing about Self-Reg or brain science.

In that spirit, as I approach the sundown of my career, I want to share the most important things I think I’ve learned from Self-Reg—without the use of Self-Reg terms or science words. Here goes.

Four Big Ideas

1. Stress is a much broader and multi-faceted phenomenon than most people think. It’s not just things that noticeably bug us. 

2. Coping, as most people think of it—successfully getting through the difficulties and challenges that give us stress—is not the most important part of stress management. Sometimes we all have to summon up our self-control and willpower in order to endure stressful situations. But, that kind of coping uses up lots of energy. If we cannot “recover” from stress, that is, rebuild the energy expended in “getting through” stress, and if we can’t shed the inner tension stress creates, we’ll tend to stay in a state where we’ll experience stress as more, um, well, stressy.

3. You can’t always think, plan or problem-solve your way out of being overstressed. Solving the problems that cause stress can be helpful. But it won’t always work because overstressed people aren’t in the best mental and physical state for problem-solving. Sometimes, often in fact, the best strategy is to address the physical part of stress—the way stress makes you feel in your body. When we feel better because we went for a walk in the woods, hung out with a friend, eaten a tasty, healthy snack, had a few laughs or something else that changes the way we feel inside: a) the stress feels less stressy,  b) we’ll be much better able to assess and solve stress-inducing problem.

4. Kids don’t learn to self-regulate by being taught how to do it. Well, maybe a bit. But they learn mostly from good relationships and experience: repeatedly being comforted, calmed and supported by others, and also through self-directed play which helps them replenish their good energy and learn what activities help them feel calm and engaged.

Discipline

5. Excess stress is the key, and often overlooked, reason discipline strategies don’t work at times. When approaching any situation that seems to call for discipline we should always take into account the impacts of excess stress on both the disciplinee and the discipliner. And when confronted with unacceptable, alarming or puzzling behaviour, look at the stress factors  (including your own stress) first before trying correct, admonish or whatever to change the person’s behaviour.

6. We waste a lot of energy trying to change kids behaviour by explaining things (rules, reasons, what the consequences will be). Nothing wrong with explaining, but we do it way too much and often at the wrong times: when people are too stressed out to hear and understand each other.

7. The teaching that discipline should be decisive and must quickly follow the transgression is wrong-headed, unless you’re talking about training rats or something like that. Trying to give firm reprimands or impose consequences in the heat of the moment just creates more stress and drains energy.  If the adult-child relationship is good, it’s perfectly fine—better even—to have “the talk” later, when both you and the child are calmer and the stress has been defused.

Social Interaction

8. In social communication, what’s going on “behind the scenes”— non-verbal deep brain signals that can trigger or calm people’s stress systems—has a huge but often ignored impact on how we read and affect other people and how they read and affect us. Many of us sort of know this on some level, but we tend overlook it because we privilege words and reasoning.

9. When we’re trying to engage with or support a highly stressed person, a pretty good initial goal should be don’t make it worse. In other words, don’t increase the stress level of an already stressful situation. Increased stress makes almost everything harder. 

Guiding/Motivating children

10. Focus less on trying to motivate kids to try harder and focus more on reducing the effort in trying.

11. “Children do well when they can” (Dr. Ross Greene) is indeed a wise and useful mantra. But helping kids do well is not just a cognitive undertaking. A child has to be in the right brain/body state for collaborative cognitive planning.

12. Seeing and addressing behaviour issues like lying and harming primarily as moral issues often gets in the way of our best efforts. It usually increases both child and adult stress levels. Moral suasion has its place, but both people have to be in the right (i.e. not overstressed) state for it.

Child Development

13. Temperament is an important concept in understanding kids. However, the best way to look at temperament is, not in terms of fixed personality traits, but in terms of how stress reactive/sensitive the child is and the sorts of factors/situations that are likely to stress them.

14. It is a mistake to think of attachment simply as how the child responds during and after separation, or how the child looks to the parent as a secure base —without taking into account both the child’s and the parent’s stress profile. And don’t try to “fix” a parent-child relationship without first understanding the stressors affecting that relationship.

15. Self-control and effort are very important in life. But looking at them solely as aspects of  “character” or “strength” that we need to build up, is a mistake. Again, stress and stress reactivity must be taken into account.

Parenting and Behaviour Problems

16. Re: kids with behaviour problems, IMO it is a mistake if experts/therapists focus solely on teaching parents discipline techniques or how to be more sensitive. It is right to try to help parents in these ways, but if you ignore stress you’re going to waste a lot of time. In fact, the most important kind of parental “sensitivity” may well be understanding their child’s and their own stressors.

17. A “bad” parent is often, if not usually, a stressed out parent. If support professionals want to improve someone’s parenting, they would do well to start by understanding and addressing the stress that affects the family. Less stressed, better-supportedparents tends to use more positive strategies regardless of what they are taught. If we want kids to be OK we need to help their parents be OK.

18. Enjoying your kids (mostly in ordinary ways) is a great and important way for parents to shed tension and replenish their good energy.

19. I’ve always believed that the foundation of good parenting is good relationships, but now I would add another foundation: informed stress awareness and management.

Mental Health

20.  Pretty much any intervention we use to improve people’s mental health will be more effective if it includes understanding and addressing the person’s excess stress.

21. Resilience fluctuates. It’s about resources and stress. People who are seen as consistently resilient have good resources (relationships, social support etc.) for managing and recovering from stress.

Phenomena That Self-Reg Helps Explain

22. Why discipline tends to work least effectively for the kids who get the most discipline.

23. Why adults process and deal with kids’ issues much more effectively when they’ve understood and dealt with their own stress.

24. Why it’s so important to do things you love. Doing things that “bring you joy,” isn’t self-centred indulgence. It’s a necessary part of stress recovery and maintaining mental and emotional wellness.

John has had three distinct careers that have blended together at times: roots musician, stay-at-home father and freelance writer. A former long-time columnist and feature writer for Today’s Parent, John now specializes in knowledge translation, blogging and writing for non-profit organizations like The MEHRIT Centre, The Psychology Foundation of Canada and Dad Central Ontario.
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