According to psychology professor and researcher Dr. Stuart Shanker, there is “no such thing as a bad kid.” After working with thousands of children across the United States and Canada as an expert on child development, Shanker saw that often, stress was the cause of children acting out or misbehaving. With a method called “self-reg,” he describes a way to identify what is stressing a child out and how to help them calm themselves down in five simple steps.
Shanker’s recent book, Self-Reg: How to Help Your Child (and You) Break the Stress Cycle and Successfully Engage with Life, explores the scientific reasons a child’s stress behavior can affect them and those around them, and teaches a parent how to understand and manage it. With stories from kids he has worked with in the past, Shanker describes how children and parents alike can achieve calm in their everyday lives.
We spoke to Shanker to learn more about his book and about how city parents can use his methods with their own children who might be struggling with stress.
Where did the idea to write this book come from?
I had been training in something called self-regulation for an awfully long time and had written a couple of books about it, but now I wanted to study it—both in terms of making sure it works and also what happens in the brain when we’re doing it. So I worked in the science lab in my clinic…and that’s basically where [the idea] grew.
In the introduction there’s a story about a teacher who claimed she had a “bad kid” in her class. Did that story start you on gathering stories of other children you’ve met or worked with?
Yes. I’ve now worked with thousands and thousands of kids, and of all those I’ve never seen a bad kid. In fact, there is no such thing. There’s always something going on, and [it’s often] that the kid is over-stressed. So then I start to figure it out: Why is this child over-stressed? It’s not always just acting out, it could be that the child is really anxious, or the child is sullen or withdrawn. And a lot of kids—and this is especially true of the kids who are labeled “bad”—have what are called hypersensitivities.
I’ll give you a great example: In the case that I started off with in the book, that little guy was very sensitive to noise. What that means is that for him, if there was noise he started to burn an awful lot of energy. But if you think about it, school is full of noise. And he has to go to school, right? We had to come up with strategies where he wasn’t getting stressed out. All we had to do for him was give him headphones, and he would put them on and take them off as he needed them. The key there is he has to know himself when he’s starting to feel overstressed, he has to know how to reduce that stress, and he has to know when he’s calm again. What we’re seeing is a generation of children and teens who don’t know what calmness feels like.
How would you define the “self-reg” method?
The first step is to understand what self-regulation is. Self-regulation refers to stress and how we manage energy, and self-reg is a step-by-step method for enhancing self-regulation. The key to self-reg is that every single child is different. What’s a stressor for one child isn’t a stressor for another child. What calms one child is different from what calms another. There is no one side to solve. What I’ve learned over the years is that the child has to learn the five steps of self-reg. Step number one is: “When am I overstressed?” Step two is: “Why am I overstressed?” Step three is: “How can I reduce my stressors?” Step four is: “What does calm feel like?” and then you get to step five, which is: “What brings me back to calm?”
Self-reg has to have all five steps because of individual variability. It’s only on the wavelength of the first four steps that a child can figure out what works for them, and kids are constantly changing. For one kid it might be music, for another it might be going for a walk, for someone else it might be art. Each child has to learn—and parents have to help them learn—what is regulating for them.
What are some of the scientific triggers that set off stress in a child’s brain?
You’ve essentially got three different brains. You have a very, very ancient brain that is mobilized when you’re in danger, you have a more primitive brain called the limbic system whose job is to scan the environment to look for signs of danger to activate that ancient brain, and you have the neocortex brain, which is the thinking brain that thinks about the consequences of an action. What scientists have discovered over the last 15 years is that when the limbic system brain becomes hyper-aroused, there’s a huge shift that goes on and the thinking brain shuts down.
In the case of the child in the introduction of the book, people were yelling at him for doing things that were irritating and they were trying to change his behavior by punishing him. But the problem is punishment only works if a kid understands why he’s being punished. In this case, the part of the brain that absorbs those lessons was the very part of his brain that had shut down. So what we do in self-reg is bring that part of the brain back online.
Do the steps vary at all depending on a child’s age?
Not really. Depending on the age, what varies is how we explain it. With teens, we’ll talk about the brain and stress. With little guys we’re not going to have that type of conversation, so we use dolls with them. We’ll use a Raggedy Ann doll and a Buzz Lightyear doll and ask: “Do you feel like Raggedy Ann or do you feel like Buzz?” and the visual cue enables them to see what’s going on with them.
Is learning self-reg at a young age something that can be carried into adulthood?
That’s the million-dollar point. That’s what I see over and over. The big, big thing is that kids internalize stress and it becomes a resource that they carry with them, and they’re going to have challenges that way. We’re talking about an over-stressed generation of kids, and I think we’re all over-stressed. I do self-reg all the time.
What do you hope readers will get out of the book?
What’s happening today is we’ve seen an explosion of stress-related problems. These are problems with behavior, mood, attention and typical health. What we’ve learned over the last 20 years is why stress breeds these problems, and more importantly, what we can do about it. The big discovery I think we’ve made is that the stress that parents are under now and that kids are experiencing is probably at the highest level it’s ever been at. They don’t know what stress is, they only have a partial understanding. In the book I carefully explain why kids are feeling stressed in their lives. I show what the five major kinds of stress are, very practical strategies to figure out when your kid is overstressed, and then what to do about it to get them back to calm.
To learn more about Dr. Stuart Shanker and Self-Reg, visit self-reg.ca!