You’ve been there; I’ve been there! We’re out with our kids at a fancy restaurant (OK, any restaurant, forget the fancy part), and they just can’t seem to sit still. They have zero self regulation skills. It gets so bad that you wonder if they want cheese with their “whine,” and you feel like you could have some of the real wine yourself.

Why can’t they behave? What’s wrong with them? Other people’s kids sit nicely; why can’t mine?

There’s nothing wrong with them. They’ve just been put in a situation that is too much for them to handle (read: our expectations may be too high for them). One common reason that kids act up and misbehave is because they are repeatedly placed in situations that require vast amounts of self control, for a duration of time that is way beyond what they are capable of.

Think of what happens when you dangle a piece of bacon over your dog’s nose and tell him to stay. He may stay or sit for a minute, expecting that the tasty treat will soon be on his lips and on its way to his tummy. But if we dangle it there for too long without feeding him that treat, he’ll eventually just jump up and grab it! His self control has its limits! And, over time, we’ve trained him to expect a treat when he sits for a specific amount of time. In other words, it’s a learned behavior that is rewarded.

And so it is with our kids. In some ways, it’s unfair of us to expect that they will sit perfectly still with their hands in their lap while we dangle the proverbial bacon over their nose (or candy, soda, or other rewards).

Sometimes, our little fidget monsters just can’t hold in their exuberance for life long enough for us to eat a grown-up dinner. That requires advanced self regulation skills that most kids simply don’t have.

As grown ups, we know how difficult it can be to learn self regulation skills.

Ever been on a diet? Or given up wine, sweets, or other indulgences? Yep, me too! I know how much self control it takes and how easy it is to eat that piece of cake, sip a chardonnay, or have “just a bite” of pizza!

Imagine that you’re 5, 7, or 10 and asked to exert that same amount of self control over and over again? Can you see how difficult it must be? As parents, rather than expecting them to exert this self control, it’s our job to control the situations that we put them in and train them to improve their self regulation skills, starting at a level that is appropriate to their age.

When our children are in life situations that require self-regulation rather than self-control, we can guide them much more readily to develop this necessary life skill. And we can do so with fewer meltdowns, tantrums, and embarrassing or awkward misbehavior.

4 Simple Ways to Unlock Self Regulation Skills

Recognize that each child is unique and has different strengths and weaknesses. They will each be capable of varying amounts of self-control.

Minimize or avoid situations where lots of self control is required (art museums or a library might not be the best choice for little boys who like to run, run, run, for example).

Put our child in situations where they can win at the game of self-regulation ( a playground or outdoor venue might be ideal for kids with lots of energy, where they can play with other kids and learn politeness and social skills, but not need to contain their energy).

Gradually introduce them to situations where they need more self control, and know when to say when; leave while they are still succeeding!

Little by little, as they grow and get more mature, our kids will naturally develop better self regulation skills. By not expecting them to handle more than they are able, and helping them learn, we can actually help them master their self control in a way that boosts their confidence and social skills. You’ve got this, mom!

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Hi, I’m Beth. I help busy moms ditch the overwhelm and gain confidence, so they can enjoy parenting more, yell less, and have peaceful kids and a happy family.

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  • Beth Meltzer, D.Min.

    Certified Wellness Coach and Yoga Instructor

    Beth Meltzer Coaching

    I can help you end emotional eating, reduce stress, increase flexibility and balance, and feel great! For years, I've coached individuals to better emotional and physical wellbeing. My one-to-one personal coaching is the quickest way to get from where you are now to your goals. Check it out here. I also teach weekly yoga and yoga breathing classes to students from all over the world via zoom. Message me if you'd like to try a class.