Family Learning | January 23, 2020

6 Steps to Help Your Child Develop Self-Control Skills

By Jennifer Miller

“I call base!” my son would say frequently after he was introduced to the game of tag. If he wanted to end the tickling or stop the chasing, he would claim a piece of furniture or the staircase banister as his safe haven. No one could touch him there. And he relished in the power and security it afforded him.

In the Parenting Minutes video on Sharing Feelings, Helena and Andrew created a safe zone at bedtime for their daughter Leah in which they could talk about any feelings she’d experienced that day. They offered their empathy without judgment as a way of settling down and reflecting on the day. That opportunity gave Leah practice with identifying and articulating her feelings and honing her ability to practice self-control. When these skills are practiced at home, children are more likely to internalize them and use them at school to aid in focusing on the learning at hand.

In families, moods and emotions can become a game of tag as one upset child or parent passes their mood on to others. When emotions become challenging, wouldn’t it be nice to call “Base!” to stop the escalation? What if kids were taught to create their own safe base so they could, in those heated moments, select to go to their safety zone? Parents can guide their children to establish this kind of safe haven as a tool for teaching self-management skills and reap the benefits during the most upsetting times. Here are some simple steps.

Propose the creation of a base when all is calm. Select a moment with no time pressures such as during playtime or after a meal together. You might ask, “Wouldn’t it be helpful if you had your own space to go to when you are upset so you could feel better?”

Offer two options. Identify two spots in your home where your child could safely leave comfort items. Be sure and consider the age and habits of your child. Will they need you close by in order to feel safe? If so, make sure that at least one of your space options is in a central area nearby you.

Designate the space as your child’s own. Involve her in deciding how she wants to designate the space. What comfort items would she like to place there such as a pillow, a stuffed friend, or a book to assist her in calming down? Designing a sign with her name on it just might create more ownership for the space.

Do a dry run. Play pretend with your child that he’s upset. Ask “Where can you go to feel better?” Seek out your child’s new safe base together. In it, practice deep breathing to demonstrate how to calm down. Use some of the comfort items placed there. Then, talk about what happens after they’ve calmed down. “When you feel better, we can talk about what was upsetting you.”

Create a family rule to respect bases. During tough moments, ten-year-old Sydney would not want five-year-old Ben to invade her safe base. If each member wants to retain a safe base, each member has to respect each other’s space, understanding that the space may be used generally by all when not being used as a safe base.

Remind. When your child becomes upset, ask, “Would you feel better if you went to your safe base?” I have marveled when my son has remembered on his own and gone to his safe base without prodding.

The concept of the safe base will not work if it’s used as a punishment. In other words, “Go to your safe base!” (said in a yelling or punishing tone), or the space or content of the space has been chosen by anyone other than the person using it, or the base isn’t respected by others. All family members, including parents, have to leave a child alone in his space when he self-selects to go there if it truly is going to promote skills.

The creation and use of a safe base will promote your child’s self-control skills, organizational skills that Harvard’s Center for the Developing Child says are the most important to cultivate in the early childhood years for school readiness and success. Try your own at-home experiment and see if the creation of a home base with your child might offer the safe haven they need to care for their own big emotions.

Additional Resources

Jennifer S. Miller, MEd. is author of the book “Confident Parents, Confident Kids; Raising Emotional Intelligence In Ourselves and Our Children — From Toddlers to Teenagers.” For twenty-five years, she has helped parents and educators become more effective with children through social and emotional learning. She learns from her own twelve-year-old son daily.