The Key to Thrive and Succeed: Teach Your Child the Art of Self-Control 

NYC-PIA Seminar, January 2024

By Melanie Wells


Dr. Laurie Freeman welcomed guest speaker Katherine Reynolds Lewis, award winning journalist, parent educator and author of The Good News About Bad Behavior.


Dr. Freeman began: Tell us about what you found in your book research. 

Katherine Reynolds Lewis: First, thank you all for giving yourselves the gift of being together to share concerns! I first came to my questions about kids’ behavior, as a parent myself. I knew about terrible twos, but by the time my oldest child was 4 or 5, I felt my kids were more chaotic and difficult than I expected. I spoke with educators, I “stalked families” to go into homes and wait until something interesting happened that I could write about.


In my research, I came across a NIH longitudinal study involving over 10,000 kids aged 13 – 18 and learned that one in two developed a mood or behavioral disorder by age 18. It was alarming – but also normalizing;  if I’m dealing with chaos and impulsivity with my kids, maybe my neighbor is too, and is worried. If we can share vulnerability and support each other in these difficulties, we should, because honestly, it’s harder now than it ever has been.


LF: Explain about how kids today are having more trouble regulating behaviors and mood.

KRL: Behavior disorders are on a spectrum, from simply annoying, to impeding daily life and leading to a diagnosis. But along that continuum, the underlying root of the behaviors is a common thread. For example, your kid refuses to go to swim practice. Just forcing him to go doesn’t get to the root of the behavior, whether it’s anxiety, fear, or difficulty with transitions. Parents need to understand what’s underneath, by developing a connection between  adult and child; that’s the foundation for self-regulation. When we connect with another human we can “lend “ them our self-regulated nervous system. In a study, veterans with PTSD were put in MRI machines while holding a spouse’s hand. They were not as triggered, even when seeing triggering images, if they were holding that hand. 

There are three important components to developing self-regulation:

1) CONNECTION: Your relationship with your child is the foundation: build the connection and progress will follow.

2) COMMUNICATION: Talk in ways that challenge your child’s planning, critical thinking, and problem solving so they can practice the things they need later in life.

3) CAPABILITY BUILDING: Focus on capability and life skills, building toward future needs. 


LF: Back to refusing swim practice: a natural parental reaction is to force the child to go,  threatening punishment or offering a bribe (candy afterward as a reward). But you’re saying something new: that connecting with your child is more powerful than forcing, and that it’s linked to the ability of the child to actively self-regulate.


KRL: Yes. You can see when a child is “out of it.” They aren’t using the prefrontal cortex, aren’t being rational and are in a more primitive, unregulated state. We can “lend” them our nervous system as they’re growing up so they can practice learning to calm down and make good choices. There is powerful science about the connection we can have if we’re with a child for a few minutes. Studies that measure heart, breathing and cortisol rate in a parent and child sitting together, show their heart rates and breathing will shortly begin to synchronize.


Our willingness to connect and be calm matters. Kids receive messages of calm and safety from us, even without words. Try to be calm when they refuse to go to swim class. Recognize that any one interaction with child, is just one, not forever. Slow down, figure out what’s going on. If we are calm, we prevent a spiral and build a connection for problem solving. Think of it as a long game, building a pattern of trust as your child grows up. 


If your child knows you’ll be calm when he comes to you, he probably will. He can talk to you if you’re an ally, and not the person with the hammer. An adversarial power relationship between parent and child is not conducive to building self-management skills. I’m not laying blame – I too gave stickers during toilet training!  – but that is not as durable a solution as building connection and trust, putting you and your child on the same team.  Transactional relationships are not as strong as one where you show understanding and teach them to understand themselves.


LF: We can change the mind set from one where “I’m in charge and I get to decide – and you’re defying me!” to another where we can be calm and figure out what’s really going on. So, I’m hearing that we want our children to trust us and come to us when they need help.

KRL: Yes. If my kids don’t do what I say, it’s easy to assume it’s a negative reflection on me as a parent, but we need to see it as an opportunity to learn. We can try to find out what’s going on with them. If they show us through their behavior that something is wrong, that’s a great opening for us to help. We start with a totally dependent baby, but by age 18 we want an independent person,  who can handle their problems and themselves. 


Kids need practice making mistakes and correcting them, themselves. 


LF: What do you understand about this current crisis of self-regulation? What’s behind it?
KRL: Three factors have changed in our society in the last 30 years:

1) A decline in free play. Play is the work of childhood and how they’ve always learned self-control and impulse control. Now they have less practice than previous generations. Kids who have fallen from a height are LESS likely to fear heights. Early experiences can inoculate us: e.g., I got lost but I found my way home. I fell, but I’m ok.

2) Growth in media and social media. Media generally focuses us outward – that extrinsic focus is associated with higher rates of depression, while intrinsic focus asks what’s good for ME. 

3) Young people are unemployed. Earlier generations had chores, babysitting, jobs – these give a sense of worth and a feeling of making someone else’s life better. There’s a link between chores and happiness. The room is cleaner or the  family is enjoying a delicious meal you made. It builds a sense of worth, belonging and meaning.


LF: External focus makes it harder for kids to feel good inside. We as parents can help them focus internally and ask, what makes YOU feel good? 

KRL: We should seek ways they can build joy or make things better – ways to find value beyond looks or other externals. You can notice when your child comes home from a birthday party and shares candy with his little sibling. Or, notice that this time your child stayed in your lap only ten minutes, and then went to play with kids in a shorter time than before. Say, “You were courageous! How did you get over your fear from last time?” Notice, then describe what they did, and ask follow up questions.


LF: Back to stickers for potty training: is it sometimes okay to use rewards?
KRL: Decades of social science research show that when incentives are offered, people discount the value of the activity. In a study, some were paid to try a new drink, and some not – the paid group rated it less tasty. We undermine the behavior when we offer a reward.  I don’t judge if you need to offer a sticker! But the science shows there are more durable ways to build trust.


LF: Allowances: what are your thoughts on that?

KRL: It’s a good way to learn money management and practice decision-making. In our family we offer it in context of our family meeting. We have a weekly meeting, each with 3 parts:

1) Appreciation: We each offer an appreciation of another, and we try to be concrete, specific and particular  (“I appreciate you helped make dinner when I was running late”). At first kids struggle with this, but over time the weekly practice helps them recognize how great it feels, and it builds a culture of gratitude.

2) Old business: Go over their concerns – bed time, screen time, etc. Start with problems they see and work toward resolving them.

3) End with allowance: I see it as a routine, not a reward. A consequence of coming to the family meeting is receiving ones’ allowance.


These meetings provide a weekly structure to reach agreements, and discuss children’s complaints or issues like the swim class. You can say, too, in any hard moment, that you’ll put this issue on the next family meeting agenda.


LF: So, it’s a time for appreciating, showing gratitude, discussing issues and problem solving. Any ideas you have for parents whose kids who have specific issues, like ADHD, anxiety?


KRL: These are common issues – anxiety the most so. Read up and learn strategies, get workbooks on ADHD. For anxiety, think of exposure therapy – give small doses of what makes them anxious, then build up. Let them see it as something they can work on. Mindfulness exercises help: name three things you can see, touch, hear. This helps them ground their body in the here and now. And finally, be an ally. Check in: ask, how is it working for you? 


For ADHD and executive functioning, plan ahead and follow up by processing and debriefing. Ask, what can you do to help remember to bring your sweatshirt home with you? If it fails, just say, I guess that strategy didn’t work, let’s find another. Long, patient work is needed. Let them know it’s okay to mess up sometimes. Help them reduce the shame that ADHD kids may feel.


If they’re bouncing off the wall, offer them  a lot of exercise. Get a trampoline!


LF: So, non-shaming is important, as is normalizing the problem.

KRL: Shorter times frames can help with ADHD, too. We have early bedtimes for our kids because they can’t get much productive work done after 9:30. They have to turn in their laptops and phones at a set time. The deadline helps them work more efficiently.


LF: Your teen turns in laptop and phone before going to bed? How did you manage that?
KRL: Feel free to use my example! Tell your kids that I said phones and computers aren’t good for you right before bedtime. It can help kids plan their time better. 


LF: What if they say, I need my phone to help me fall asleep?

KRL: Say, “I know you’re relying on this and it’s my fault. I’ve let you do it. Now we need a re-set.” You’d be surprised how often they’ll agree. 


LF: Even if they push back and say no, you can’t take my phone, they also know there’s some good in it?

KRL: We can also, as a family, ALL put our phones away.


LF: Suppose the other parent DOES believe in punishment and rewards.
KRL: It’s really hard if the household rules aren’t set. Try as much as possible to have the same rules. Don’t try to enforce something if the other parent isn’t on board. Parents focused on connection and problem solving end up getting better cooperation. After a few months your partner may notice and say, hey why is it working so much better for you? He may be become interested in getting on the same page with you.


LF: What about an 8th grader who always takes a victim stance, never takes responsibility?.

KRL: A child who acts out in a nasty way is one who underneath feels hurt. Sometimes the best response is just, Do you need a hug? Match the emotion, tell them you see how bad they feel and invite them to unload feelings. Express sympathy, use reflective listening. Don’t try to persuade them to change, but help them correct, to shed the fear of being blamed. This can be a long-term goal. Say, “This year, we’ll work on ways to take responsibility for your actions.” And model what it looks like to take responsibility.


LF: Two boys 12 and 14, are very influenced by their peers. Any ideas about that?

KRL: If we see something that alarms us, we catastrophize and imagine it lasting forever. But 12 and 14 are ages where kids are peer-driven and sometimes we just need to grin and bear it. Ask about peers – say, I notice you’re using words your friend uses, tell me what you like about that. And find ways to express how you think your child is unique and valuable.


LF: My 18 year-old is vaping and says just leave me alone about this.

KR: As kids turn 18, it’s scary. They’re beyond our legal control, but still not adults. Build the relationship so they will trust you and come to you when they’re ready. What doesn’t work? Nagging. Try to have family agreements around check-ins on health, vaping, school work. 


LF: You are saying we should try to build an alliance with the child, even when things are rough.

KRL: An 18-year-old doesn’t have a fully formed prefrontal cortex. It’s scary. They’re drinking and driving. But we need them to know we’ll be there for them when they come to us.


LF: But suppose child is 16 or 17 and says I want to smoke weed and I don’t care what you say. 

KRL: That’s a broken relationship. So, first, work on the relationship. Apology can be powerful. Start with: “I failed you as a parent if you feel it’s okay to behave this way and to harm yourself. I’m not sure what to do about it yet, but your health and safety are my responsibility as a parent.” Maybe you’ll need to give consequences, take away privileges. With an openly defiant child, start by working on the relationship, and then set agreements and find a path back.


LF: When does a parent need professional help with this? What about a defiant teen who says I’m going to smoke pot, and if you take my money away I’ll just earn my own?

KRL: As soon as you feel you need help, get help. You can reach out even if your kid doesn’t want to go, you can get help for yourself. Your 16 year old at home is still being supported by you. So, If your child wants to earn his own money, say, “Okay, let’s look at a budget. How will your budget cover everything if you’re spending money on weed and need to pay rent?” Help them understand the full context. Try to perceive what’s underneath their behavior, and help them to see the big picture, long term.


LF: How about the child who has procrastinated with his homework, then has a meltdown?

KRL: Tighter time limits can help, but in the middle of the meltdown you can’t do much. They’re flipping out. However, the next day you can say, it was really hard to see you so upset. Ask, is there a way to work together to help you not have to come to that point? Know that the child in meltdown is in pain, but that the pain they’re experiencing is what they need to motivate them to change. The difficult moment shows your child they need to change their behavior. Don’t rescue them in the moment, but do remain calm. Debrief, then approach the problem as a long-term project to find solutions and do better.


LF: At the 11th hour, you don’t rescue them by helping them get the paper done, but you act  more as a coach to help them build skills for next time?

KR: Yes. My kids know my brain turns off at 10:00 – so they know  I’m happy to help earlier, but not then! These are things to plan in advance.


LF: So, even though so many of us grew up with reward and punishment, it’s a relief to understand that connecting, helping your child build skills, seeing good in them and learning what motivates them intrinsically are all ways to a better path. And the family meeting time is a valuable strategy we can all try. Thank you so much, and thank you to all who attended!

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