Self-regulation in Children; Why is it important?

Learning self regulation is an important set of skills that all children need to develop in order to grow into happy and successful adults. So why is it hard for some children, and how can we help them?

Introduction to Self Regulation

Almost everyone could say that they have seen a child in the midst of a tantrum. Often these outbursts can happen at the most inopportune times such as whilst waiting in line at the supermarket or during a family get-together. A child’s tantrum can leave a parent feeling embarrassed and defeated but it is important to look deeper than the child’s behaviour and consider what is underlying the unpleasant outburst.

Young children take time to develop the skills they need to effectively self-regulate their emotions. Knowing how to support your child through strong emotions and help them develop these skills is extremely important. Below we explore what self-regulation actually is and why it is so essential for healthy human development.

Self Regulation
Children need to learn to self regulate their emotions for healthy social/emotional development

What is self regulation in children?

Self regulation refers to a person’s ability to understand and manage their behaviour and reactions to the feelings they are experiencing. It includes being able to control impulses, calm down after experiencing something exciting or upsetting and being able to behave in socially appropriate ways. Self regulation skills are especially important when reacting to strong emotions such as anger, embarrassment or frustration.

Why is self regulation important?

Without being able to self regulate, a person is at risk of letting their emotions significantly impact on their behaviour. For children, learning to self regulate is important as they become more independent and begin to make decisions about their behaviour and how they will manage situations without guidance from an adult. Being able to self regulate also has the following benefits for children:

·      Helps them learn effectively at school.

·      Allows them to behave in socially appropriate ways.

·      Supports them to make and keep friends.

·      Is beneficial for their mental health.

For some more detailed information about self regulation, visit the following site: How to Support Self-Regulation Difficulties in Children – Foothills Academy


How do I teach my child to self regulate?

Children develop self-regulation skills through secure and responsive relationships with their parents or caregivers. Self-regulation begins to develop from infancy but really kicks in during the toddler and preschool years.

Self Regulation
The best way to teach children self-regulation skills is by positive role modelling

 Children learn much about self-regulation by watching adults around them so the best way that a parent or caregiver can help their child learn to self-regulate is by modelling it themselves. If a parent has difficulty controlling their own emotions and behaves in ways that are negative or destructive, it is likely that the child will learn to express their own feelings in a similar way. For example, if an adult expresses their anger by yelling, screaming and throwing things – the child will learn that this is an appropriate way to express and vent their own frustrations.

What causes poor self regulation?

Young children can experience very big emotions that can be hard to process – and these can even be scary for them. Feelings such as anger, anxiousness and frustration are triggering for a child and can lead to them having a meltdown or tantrum. When this does occur, it is important to know that enforcing punishments for these behaviours won’t help the child learn the skills they need to calm down, cope and adapt to the feelings they are experiencing. For some helpful suggestions on dealing with meltdowns and tantrums, check out the following website: Tantrums: why they happen & how to respond | Raising Children Network

There can be a huge range of reasons why a child might have difficulties self-regulating – from particular personality-types to developmental disorders such as Global Development Delay, or experiences of trauma. In many cases, as a child grows older they gain more skills in terms of self-regulation – particularly when they have positive role models in their lives who can help them process those hard feelings and then respond to them more appropriately.

Self Regulation
If your child is having ongoing difficulties with self-regulation it may be best to consult a professional such as a psychologist or paediatrician

For children who have medical conditions, disabilities or developmental problems or a trauma background, the services of a medical or health care professional might be required to determine the best possible strategies for helping a child grow their self-regulation skills. A paediatrician is always a good starting point so if you are concerned about your child’s lack of self-regulation skills, consider booking an appointment with your local paediatrician.


What are self-regulation techniques?

For adults, it is important to recognise and understand that we all have choices in terms of how we react to situations. In any circumstance, there are three options we might choose to act upon – either approaching, avoiding or attacking the problem. Whilst our feelings might certainly affect which approach we tend to lean towards, it is important to understand that we have a choice in relation to which option we pursue. By focusing on our values and beliefs instead of focusing entirely on our emotions, we are able to make better decisions in terms of how we respond – and herein lies effective self-regulation.

There are many techniques and strategies that have been proven effective in supporting emotional-regulation. For adults, practicing mindfulness can have a significantly positive impact. Engaging in practices such as focused breathing, meditation and mindfulness will help put some space in between what is happening in our lives and our reactions. This allows for some conscious thinking so that a person is able to respond rather than react and therefore exhibit greater self-control. For some simple mindfulness exercises, visit the following website: 1-Minute Mindfulness Exercises (psychcentral.com)

There are many other techniques that individuals might choose to use to help them regulate their emotions. Engaging in exercise, taking a 5 minute ‘time out’ for yourself or journaling are all simple yet effective strategies that many choose to use to help them deal with their emotions in a healthy and appropriate way.

What are some examples of self regulation?

We can see the beginnings of self-regulation in very young babies. A baby who sucks on their fingers whilst waiting to be fed is comforting themselves. Babies can also be observed avoiding eye-contact if they are feeling over-stimulated and need a break from the attention whilst objects such as a dummy or special blanket can become useful tools in supporting early self-regulation development.

 As a toddler or child grows older, they will learn more strategies for self-regulation that align with socially accepted behaviours. Learning how to speak quietly whilst at the movies, recognising the body indicators for needing the toilet, especially when at the early stages of toilet training, and learning how to turn-take and negotiate with others all require self-regulation skills. Most children will continue to develop these skills as they progress through the teenage years and being exposed to adults who are able to self-regulate their own emotions will certainly have a very positive impact. Children learn what they see – and this is why it is so important that we, as adults, display positive strategies for regulating our own emotions.

How do you help kids regulate their emotions?

The best way you can help your kids learn to regulate their emotions is by practicing self-regulation yourself. Displaying patience, calm and kindness will help your child see that it is possible to self-regulate through difficult circumstances. For children and teens, they often need both time and support to learn and practice self-regulation effectively. Offering empathy and validating the child’s feelings is important and then within a secure relationship, the adult can support the child to use calming strategies and gain control of their emotions. Over time and with practice this will get easier – but here are a few suggestions for supporting self-regulation in children:

Self Regulation
Children will develop self-regulation techniques from as early as birth but they all develop at different rates and at different stages

–         Have realistic expectations of your child based upon their age and stage of development.

–         Stay calm and model self-regulation

–         Provide support and encouragement for the child

–         Be empathetic and acknowledge the child’s feelings

–         Remove any unnecessary demands to reduce stress for the child

–         Provide structure and consistency in your responses to children. Be consistent with rules and expectations.

–         Expand your child’s vocabulary to help them effectively talk about their feelings.

–         Help the child develop some strategies for coping when they are dysregulated eg. Taking a break, positive affirmations, asking for help etc.

–         Teach children about their brain and help them understand how stress affects them

–         Use positive reinforcement and praise to celebrate successes in self-regulation

–         Avoid punishing a child for dysregulated behaviour and instead focus on the skills they need to grow to effectively self-regulate

If you would like to know more about supporting your child to develop self-regulation strategies, visit the following website: BeYou – Self Regulation.

Summary of Self Regulation in Children

It is so important that children develop self-regulation skills as this will have a direct impact on their overall happiness and success in life. Children who are able to effectively and appropriately deal with stress, disappointment, frustration and anger are far more likely to do well in school and develop positive relationships with others. Supporting your child to learn effective emotional-regulation strategies from infancy will truly give them a great start in life.

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