Self-regulation is one of the key emotional intelligence (EI) skills. Self-regulation, also called self-management, is the ability to keep disruptive emotions and impulses under control in a healthy, manageable way. Self-regulation is also something that can make a huge difference in a child’s development. However, few children are born knowing how to self-regulate on their own and like any other skill, it must be taught. Thankfully, teachers and experts in child psychology have certain recommendations of the best ways to teach this skill and to improve your child’s EI in the process.
Is Self-Regulation the Answer?
As parents, we sometimes assume certain childhood behaviors are normal and, therefore, out of our influence. Children scream, run around, and play fight all the time, so what separates that energetic behavior from disruptive behavior? While there’s nothing wrong with expressing excitement during playtime, issues can arise when this behavior carries over to the grocery store or a restaurant. This inability to recognize their own behavior and how appropriate it is for a given situation represents a need to work on self-regulation.
This is not to say that self-regulation is the only answer to these problems. In general, if these tantrums and behavioral issues continue past the age of 4 or 5, then other factors may be involved. Childhood behavior is a very nuanced and delicate science and every child is different. ADHD and anxiety disorders, just to name a few, can sometimes be the root cause of these issues that are closely tied in with self-regulation.
If you suspect these could be a possible explanation for your child’s behavior, then consult with your doctor and seek a definitive answer. While many of the self-regulation strategies coming up will also help with those disorders, they are not the only solution. They can be discussed with your doctor and if useful, incorporated in a specific, specialized care plan for your child.
Why is Self-Regulation Important?
So you might be wondering, what exactly will self-regulation do for my child and why should we start working on it now? These are both great questions with a host of answers, so I’ll do my best to summarize.
Self-regulation skills prepare your child for preschool, improve school performance and teacher-student relationships. A student who is better able to sit and listen without being disruptive for long periods of time has been shown to perform better in school. This is something many children struggle with, especially in pre-k and kindergarten because they’ve never had to self-regulate before. It’s not easy for them to jump into a new situation all at once and face so many distractions without being sidetracked. By working on self-regulation and EI before the first day of school, you will help them face these distractions head on, stay on task and be ready for school.
On top of this, you can expect fewer temper tantrums from a child with self-regulation. It goes without saying that temper tantrums can be one of the most stressful parts of being a parent. If your child is prone to these emotional outbursts, improving self-regulation includes teaching them how to recognize their feelings preceding an outburst, an expansive vocabulary of emotions and working on strategies to express those emotions in a less disruptive way. If you’re getting feedback from caregivers/teachers that your child is being disruptive and distracting others or if they have difficulty comprehending school lessons because they are too distracted to learn, then self-regulation can really benefit them.
Another surprising benefit of teaching your child self-regulation is greater independence. A child who can self-regulate can be more predictable. This can take a huge amount of stress off a parent’s shoulders. Some parents feel they need to be within arms reach of their child in order for their child to be safe, but by teaching them self-regulation skills it’s more likely that a child will gain greater independence sooner.
Ways to Improve Self-Regulation in Children
We know that self-regulation can help in many ways and if it sounds like the right answer for your child, then you may be wondering where to begin. There are many ways to improve self-regulation in children so finding the best approach for your child is key. I like to start with some of the easier solutions and then progress to the more time-consuming strategies if the problems persist.
Using age-appropriate calming strategies is a great way to start teaching them emotional regulation. Visit raisingchildren.net for some key advice. Taking your toddler somewhere quiet during a meltdown and calmly empathizing with their emotions is how they recommend we deal with tantrums. Breathing exercises can help them bring themselves down from an emotional place when you’re not around. I have a video here with step by step instructions of how you can make this a daily practice.
On that front, mindfulness and meditation, both of which I’ve written about extensively on this blog, are highly recommended for developing self-regulation. These topics can be tricky to implement in a child’s life so if you’re interested in reading some strategies about incorporating mindfulness into your child’s life, then check out this piece I wrote a little while back.
Additional strategies include praising your child when they show emotional regulation and role modeling self-regulation skills. Affirmation acknowledges the effort they’ve made and strengthens the bond of trust between parent and child. Role modeling can help them learn what emotional self-regulation looks like in the first place. When you point out examples of self-regulation in your own life, you serve as a living example of the behavior you want your children to exhibit.
A young toddler usually has a meltdown because they are frustrated, tired, or hungry. Inwardly feeling frustrated is oftentimes exhibited by an angry looking temper tantrum. Put yourself in your child’s skin. You are playing with a toy that is too difficult to master, another child takes a toy away from you right in the middle of the story you’re creating in your head, a sibling breaks your masterpiece you’ve just put your all into building. You don’t have the vocabulary to know the name of what you are feeling, you haven’t heard conversations between the adults in your life about emotions, you haven’t had a parent ask you about your feelings so what do you do? You throw a classic toddler temper tantrum. A great way for a parent to prepare their child for having a high EI and success is to read books, beginning at just a few months old, that teach emotion vocabulary and building upon that vocabulary through books, play and conversation. Remember that a baby hears conversations and the power of receptive language.
The Child Mind Institute has some additional advice that can really help if you’re struggling with self-regulation. Ideas like “scaffolding” and “practice runs” can set your child up for future success. Both of these concepts recommend parents oversee and coach their children through difficult and emotional situations and progressively offer less and less help as the child begins to demonstrate that they can handle these situations on their own..
These strategies are such a relief for parents who struggle to find a balance between coddling their child and letting them fend for themselves. It can be so tricky to know when to intervene and when to let our children solve their own problems. After all, we can’t be over our children’s shoulders when they’re grown up so we have to trust that we’ve given them the skills to navigate the world on their own.
I hope some of the suggestions and references in this article have been helpful and that you’ve taken something away from this discussion on self-regulation. It’s such an important skill that none of us are born with but that all of us can learn. And the fact that it’s a skill that can be taught and improved upon is encouraging for many parents in and of itself. Just because your child is disruptive and prone to outbursts at a young age, doesn’t mean it will always be this way. Kids aren’t alone in this. There are plenty of adults who need to learn self regulation skills, too. With our help and guidance, children and their future adult self will thrive. Let me know in the comments what you’re working on this week and I’ll be back next week with another article!