A topic that has been on my mind recently is previewing. Many parents are familiar with the idea of previewing behavioral expectations with children. Before entering a new situation or a familiar situation that has been tricky in the past, it can be so helpful for parents to briefly review a couple of reminders about expectations. This is a useful tool throughout childhood and may look like the following:
For preschoolers: “It’s so exciting that we’re trying a new playground today. It will be fun to explore. Remember that if you hear me say, “Freeze!” your job is to stop your body just like we practiced at home.”
For school aged children: “When I pick you up from your playdate this afternoon unfortunately we won’t have a lot of extra time. I’m going to text your friend’s parent so they can give you a heads up that I’ll be there soon. When I arrive, you’ll have a minute or two to say goodbye then we’ll hop in the car.”
For tweens or teens: “As a reminder, Grammy and Poppa get really stressed when kids are on their phones. We’ll be at their house for 3 hours. You can take a break in the middle of our visit and find a quiet place to check your phone. What do you think is the best plan for the rest of the visit so you’re not tempted to pull our your phone when you’re with them?”
One of the things I love about this tool is that previewing helps to set your child up for success. When parents preview behavioral expectations in a calm, clear way, children and parents can have the experience of feeling that they are on the same team, working towards a common goal, just as a coach talks through expectations with players before a game.
A related type of previewing involves helping children think ahead about what emotions might come up for them in a difficult moment, which is sometimes referred to as pre-regulating. By talking about challenging emotions ahead of time, children can mentally practice managing intense feelings when they are calm and regulated. Previewing challenging situations helps children understand the universality of struggling with big emotions and alleviates the shame children may feel if they struggle to regulate their emotions in the moment.
Pre-regulating is a useful strategy for everyone’s parenting toolbox and may be particularly useful if you have a child who is highly sensitive, has big emotional reactions, is easily dysregulated, and/or has a pattern of becoming upset in particular situations. Here are some ways to put this strategy into action:
Talking through a new or unfamiliar situation: “You haven’t been to Tai Chi class before so this will be something new. We know the part of your brain that worries doesn’t like new situations, so your worry brain might get kind of loud about not wanting to go. What ideas do you have about what to say to your worry brain when it shows up?”
For a child who struggles with losing, previewing what it might feel like to lose a game:“Uno is one of my favorite games and I’m excited to play with you. Something tricky is that one of us is going to win and one of us is going to lose. Sometimes losing can make people feel mad and frustrated. If you lose today how do you think you might feel? What would you like your plan to be if that happens?”
At the beginning of screen time, predicting what it will feel like to stop: “Remember when we talked about how video games are designed so people who play them will never want to stop? What will it feel like when I tell you screen time is over? What strategy will you use to help you manage that feeling of never wanting to stop playing your game?”
Predicting how it will feel when a sibling is the center of attention: “Your brother’s school play is tomorrow. I’m guessing lots of people will be complimenting him after the show. What do you think that will feel like for you? It’s ok to be proud of your brother AND to feel like it’s hard when he gets tons of attention.”
With a child who has difficulty leaving a favorite place or activity, previewing how it will feel when it’s time to leave: “It’s so fun that you’re spending the day with your cousins. I remember last time you had such big feelings when it was time to leave. You were running away from me and yelling. Do you remember that? It’s ok for you to be sad and disappointed when it’s time to go AND I also need to make sure you’re safe even when you’re upset. Let’s make a plan about how we can work together if you’re frustrated about leaving.”
Keep in mind that these discussions may not lead to immediate behavior change. Learning to regulate one’s emotions takes time, patience, practice, and maturity. When parents have conversations in which they acknowledge and expect that children will experience intense feelings, children feel supported in the process of learning to understand, manage, and regulate their emotions.