Dr. Sweta Anantharaman, Nidhi Bannur and Dr. Aparna Sahu
Self-regulation, or the ability to manage our thoughts, emotions, behaviors effectively, is an understudied, but important life skill. Most successful interactions involving self-regulation require dealing with the dynamics of a situation effectively, they require putting off momentary self-doubts and foregoing pleasures to achieve long-term success.
Consistent feedback and reflections on such successful situations build a confident and self-aware individual. Conversely, a lack of opportunities in navigating self-regulation scenarios can lead to self-doubt and anxiety, which could build up over time.
For the most part, teaching children how to regulate their thoughts and emotions is within the family domain. Can self-regulation be taught in other ways? Stories and games could be powerful mediums for learning self-regulation.
Games are characterized by enjoyment and fun as they engage players, so much so that they now feature in education and skills development. They allow players/individuals to interact with environments and make the experience an enriching one.
Game players are able to transfer the learnings from the game environment to the real environment, e.g. Monopoly, a well-known board game that allows players to take decisions about buying and selling properties and developing real estate. It gives players a sense of control over imaginary assets and monies, while also allowing them to grow in their understanding and value of assets.
Likewise, role-playing games simulate situations such as a farm, or a community. Such games are predominantly player-driven, where characters are in control of the player. The primary goal of such games is to have players understand their environments and perform specific actions, to make players better based on the available skills and techniques.
Embedding stories in games, where children can be immersed in the role of a character, and make decisions that directly give them control of the narrative, which may not be an option in their realities, provides the opportunity for new kinds of learning.
Through their immersive experiences in gameplay, children may get a platform to regulate their thoughts and emotions ‘offline’ (i.e. in a game) and these strategies may become a part of their ‘online’ (real-life) experiences.
For example, consider a 7-year-old who gets angry when s/he does not win a prize at a school race.
S/he throws her/himself on the ground, crying and shouting, inconsolable and helpless. Such a scenario could have in-game prompts, which help children recognize what makes them angry, understand the emotion and the limits of anger, (un) acceptable behavioral consequences, and productive ways of overcoming a strong reaction.
Embedded characters in different scenarios such as family, playground, and classrooms, could target typical challenging scenarios that children have difficulty navigating. The objective of this example is to help children understand the concept of anger and how to control it in situ.
Similarly, a story about a 5-year-old who is afraid of the dark and learns to face her/his fear through in-game plots and prompts can help the child understand the concept of fear and how to cope with it. Games also require children to take turns and wait patiently, which can help them learn the importance of self-control and delay gratification.
That is, one cannot skip to the next step of the game immediately to find out how the game flows; each step of the game is contingent on the player’s response. Similarly, a game that requires children to cooperate and share can help them learn the importance of empathy and social skills.
In addition, stories and games can be used to teach children about the importance of setting and working towards goals, which is a key aspect of self-regulation. For example, taking an established plot of the ‘Ant and the Grasshopper,’ in-game prompts could guide children to think/reason about counterfactual consequences of characters’ behavioral trajectories. Such exercises can help children understand the importance of setting and working towards goals and more importantly, help them internalize concepts.
Gamifying regulatory strategies could also be a great tool for caregivers, as it would also provide an avenue to co-regulate rather than the child feeling ‘alone’ in learning to manage her/his thoughts and emotions. Having a caregiver playing along could provide opportunities for children to learn how feeling ‘negative’ emotions are normal for adults as well, but adults can talk through different methods in overcoming their negative thoughts and emotions.
For instance, going back to the 7-year-old who lost a school race, caregivers playing along, simulate realistic ways of acknowledging the loss and associated emotions (losing sucks, it’s okay to feel angry and disappointed), demonstrating support – i.e., a hug, and showing the way forward – i.e., the process is more important than outcomes.
Self-regulation through gamifying stories would be an effective way to help children internalize self-regulation strategies, develop social skills, and improve their ability to set and work towards goals. Teaching regulation early on is important as it is essential to give children opportunities to practice self-regulation in a safe and engaging way.
Providing consistent feedback, training, and opportunities to practice regulation skills many times over via gameplay in a simulated environment could make all the difference for a young mind so that when faced with real situations, regulating one’s thoughts and emotions becomes an instinctive response.
With enough guidance and support over time, children can learn to manage their emotions, thoughts, and behaviors and carve a successful path in all areas of their lives.
Dr. Sweta Anantharaman is a Developmental Psychologist and CBT therapist. She is also a visiting researcher at Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Studies in Mumbai.
Nidhi Bannur, is a 3rd-Year Bachelor’s Student majoring in Psychology, Sociology and English Literature at Christ (Deemed to be) University, Bangalore.
Dr. Aparna Sahu is a Cognitive Psychologist. She is a consultant for Turiyan Psyneuronics, Bangalore, and a visiting Research Associate for the Epilepsy Surgery Program, Neurology Dept, KEM hospital, Mumbai.
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