Self-regulation for kids 101 (why and how!)

Alex O'Donoghue

Written by Alex O'Donoghue

Learning to self-regulate is a key milestone in your child's development.

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But what does it mean to help your children self-regulate? Can you teach it? We've put together some thoughts and tips on self-regulation, supported by examples from the best experts: parents!

What is self-regulation?

It's simpler than it sounds. Self-regulation is the overarching term for a group of skills which help us to manage our emotions, thinking and behaviour. It is helping your child to express emotions in a way that is more effective (and less disruptive) than having a full-on meltdown. Or simply to support him or her to take helpful actions and understand feelings better. 

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Why it matters

Self-regulation is important for social, cognitive and behavioural self-control and also healthy self-expression. It's not about squashing the negative and only displaying positive feelings and behaviour. A range of feelings is human, and normal, whatever one's age - but having the tools to navigate them is key.

For a two-year-old this might be a reaction to boundaries when he or she hears 'no' and for a three-year-old it might be suppressing the desire to not share toys because making friends looks more appealing. It is the capacity to decide on next actions/behaviour based on what we feel and what challenges or opportunities life throws at us.

It's about being present during your child's emotional experiences (good or bad), validating their feelings and modelling or showing them options to help them, help themselves. Foundational self-regulation, while often overlooked by parents who may struggle with it themselves, is the key to success in all areas of life, including relationships, school, parenting, and the workplace.

A wise teacher-mum gives her perspective

We asked a a teacher and mum of two, Claire, to share how she approaches this topic. Claire is a special educational needs teacher and shared her thoughts with us.

"If a child is over-aroused or highly anxious, it prevents them from learning. It blocks the neural pathways so learning cannot take place. For some children this doesn’t come naturally so it needs to be nurtured and sometimes taught explicitly.

We use lots of different ways to support the children in the school I teach at. I created sensory and learning ‘break boxes’ for children who struggled with regulation in my classes. Each box had essential oils (lemon and lavender) to smell, playdough, beads to thread, a stress ball, different tactile pieces of fabric, yoga pose cards, and breathing technique cards with pictures.”

We think this kind of approach is clever and easy. Why? It interrupts a child’s level of heightened emotion (and limbic/survival system) around something by giving them things which stimulate senses that aren’t brain emotion: touch, smell, movement and so on. As a parent, you can create something similar to help your child to redirect their attention and activate sensory experience over immediate emotions which they want to act on!

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Self-regulation and parenting

Self-regulation is not about teaching your child (or yourself!) to become a zen robot. It's not about children not having tantrums or getting angry.  Your role is to support your child in handling their feelings and being aware and empowered to make different behaviour choices. There is no perfect recipe - children are wonderfully unique and biologically wired a little differently.

Different approaches to children's emotions and behaviour have different results.

  • Parents who notice, accept and validate their children’s negative feelings tend to affect them positively. They can then help their children to verbalise feelings and problem-solve for themselves.

  • Parents who punish children for their negative emotions can cause them to get even more worked up, which ramps up their nervous system and delays the calming down process. This can be extremely hard for parents as it's normal to feel stressed when your child does!

When a child starts to escalate hysterical / upset feelings, they may seem like they're being 'naughty'. However, it's simply a child whose nervous system is becoming rapidly over-stimulated. Scolding a child doesn't encourage him or her to develop self-regulation skills and calm themselves.

If I personally struggle with it, will I fail my child?

It’s never too late to start helping children learn to self-regulate. Parents play a major role in self-regulation development, but it’s okay not to have your own self-regulation nailed by the time you have kids! No one has had perfect parenting themselves and some of us have grown up without seeing self-regulation modelled. So what are the key things you can do, regardless of your background?

How to model and mentor self-regulation

Children observe their parents, internalising and then copying their behaviours. They watch how parents struggle and handle their own intense feelings and impulses. Some ways to support your child are to:

  • Be warm, accepting and responsive to your child’s emotional needs.

  • Talk about emotions.

  • Support and show empathy to validate your child's negative feelings, even if you don't agree with them internally. Empathy is about showing your child they are heard, and not trying to change their emotions for them.

  • Be patient (harder on some days than others).

  • Don't dismiss, discourage, or punish your child for showing negative feelings.

  • Correcting behaviour by helping to teach new coping techniques is best. (e.g. take a deep breath).

  • Help a very distressed child to redirect attention rather than acting on every emotion.

  • Don't over-protect your child. It is important children feel uncomfortable feelings and develop tools for coping with these. If you're always jumping in and smothering your child with reassurances, they may learn to ‘outsource’ self-regulation - which might become a habit.

A parent's anecdote

We really enjoyed hearing what Josi, a mum living in Sydney, Australia, had to say about self-regulation and her role 'modelling' this way of being for her three-year-old daughter.

She shared: "I don't really think of myself as modelling behaviour, even though I know that's what I should be doing! What I have done with my daughter - when she's really upset - is to try and calm her down with lots of soothing words and explanations - and she gets even more upset.

Today I tried a different tact. Which was to acknowledge what she was thinking and saying. She had an utter meltdown because she wanted to wear this ballet dress and tutu without sleeves, and it was really cold. I was trying to explain to her that if she wears just a dress, she needs to wear a jumper... anyway, she didn't want to wear one, and she was so upset. She kept shouting back at me, the more I explained, that she wanted to wear her dress without a jumper.

In the end, I repeated to her that I understood that she didn't want to wear a jumper and I kept on repeating her feelings back to her. And it just calmed her... even though I didn't agree with her, at least she felt heard and knew that I understood that's what she wanted!"

Josi then told her daughter (during lots of healthy screams and shouts!) that she loved her so much, offered a hug, and told her where to find her in the house (bathroom). Eventually her little one, despite being so upset, came to find her mum and told her she was ready to put on her jumper. 

We find this anecdote a classic example of a child at this age and stage, asserting needs and struggling to understand what to do when refused. Josi knew it was cold and her daughter might catch a cold. And so it was important she didn't give in, despite her child's upset fury. 

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The science stuff

If it seems like your child has a harder time learning self-regulation, and other moms don't report the same struggles, you might think there is something wrong. However, researchers have found that some babies’ temperaments are intrinsically more capable of self-regulating than others.

However, it's not set in stone - all children can learn to manage feelings. Genetics are important, but the environment a child grows up in makes a big difference.

The National Academies of Sciences in the USA published some fascinating research on the neuroscience of delayed self-gratification, one of the behaviours associated with developed skills in self-regulation. In plain speak, they looked at the brain activity of children who were or weren't able to resist temptation at a young age and compared their capacity for decision making at a set point in adulthood. 

Individuals who were less able to delay gratification in preschool consistently showed better self-control abilities in their twenties and thirties.

Is self-control the same as self-regulation?

There is a relationship, but it’s not the same. Postponing immediate gratification and persisting in goal-directed behaviour is part of the ability to self-manage but is more linked to control over one’s actions. There are well known experiments with delayed self-gratification, which is something people have tested as part of the ability to keep one’s emotions and behaviours in check.

Who remembers Walter Mischel’s famous experiment on the child trying to resist the marshmallow? His theory? Individuals who as children voluntarily postpone immediate gratification are better able, as adults, to persist in goal-directed behavior for the sake of later outcomes.

Over time the results have come into question, but it was successful in highlighting how tricky it is to resist temptation - and what the results of this may be.

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Cognitive, or self-control, is an important part of growing up. It refers to the ability to suppress competing inappropriate thoughts or actions in favour of appropriate ones. Which really means resisting the temptation to do whatever you want, because you’ve used some decision making to assess whether this will work out better or worse for you in the future. 


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