Self-regulation – what is it and how to improve it.


Self-regulation – what is it and how to improve it.

What is self-regulation?

This is such a difficult thing to define, but I’ll do my best. Basically, it’s having the ability to understand and experience emotions and then form the appropriate response based on a current situation. It is feeling a big emotion, but having the sense to calm down and control that emotion.

This is an exceedingly difficult skill for children, and one whose foundations are set in the first 5 years of life, though more so in the first 2 years. Think about your toddler throwing an all-out, raging tantrum because they can’t stay outside to play a bit longer. She wants to keep playing outside and does not understand why she can’t. That frustration she feels builds, until she knows nothing else. She can’t distinguish between the fact that she is a little person feeling a big emotion, from the reaction she has to that emotion. Hello, tantrum.

We need to help these little people learn to self-regulate, and luckily there’s a lot of ways to do that which are appropriate for the developmental stage they may be in.

Why should we teach self-regulation to our small children?

There are a multitude of reasons! Though self-regulation takes time to learn and master, children who are better at it are less likely to throw tantrums. This is because they know what they are feeling is an emotion, they are able to calm themselves down and adjust their behavior to suit their situation.

Self-regulation allows them to feel their emotions, to actually experience big feelings like anger or frustration, but to stay in control while doing so, ensuring they don’t hurt themselves or others, or break things.

These children generally do what’s right even if no one is watching (for example pick-up their toys or brush their teeth without being reminded or nagged to do so). They are better at delayed gratification (you can have a treat after lunch) and consider the consequences of their actions instead of acting on impulse. Because they are in control of their emotions, they are better able to focus on the task at hand.

Children who are unable to self-regulate are more prone to tantrums which cause stress in the home-environment.

But, we should always remember that self-regulation is a marathon and not a sprint, and the work we do now will only really come into fruition much later on. Children who learn positive self-regulation early on become adults with higher self-esteem, have better physical health (less obesity), are more successful academically and higher earners in the business world. They handle stressful situations much better, which influences their relationships, leading to lower divorce rates. A big one is that they are less likely to suffer from addictions such as drugs and alcohol.

So how do we encourage self-regulation?

Let me start by saying that though the main foundations are learnt in the first 5 years of life, proper self-regulation can be taught at any age (even adults who struggle with their emotions can learn to take control!), so don’t feel that you’ve missed the boat if your child is fast approaching, or passed, 5. It will just require more work and more time.

Remember that when your child is working through big emotions, the behavior that comes with it should not be seen as disruptive, disrespectful or undisciplined. We are not here to force our children to suppress their emotions, to minimize their feelings or stick them in a naughty corner, thereby teaching them that hard emotions should not be expressed. Quite the opposite! We want them to feel those emotions! And learn how to react to them appropriately.

There’s a ton of things you can do – both subtle and more specific – which can encourage your child to self-regulate. Here are a few:

  1. Keep your child’s developmental age in mind. Games that work for a 3-year-old won’t work for a 1 year old and will just lead to frustration on both your parts. Try adjusting the techniques so that your child can understand them.

Children develop self-regulation in a fairly standard order:
First, they learn to regulate their body and physical behavior. Then they learn to regulate their emotional behaviors, and only then do they start regulating their mental processes of learning through thought, senses and experiences. As with many developmental milestones, they are working on all of these simultaneously, but they usually focus on one at a time, in the abovementioned order.

  1. Be a role model

This is first and foremost, this is the vital teaching of self-regulation, for the simple reason that our children learn acceptable behaviors from mimicking what they see us do. Everything from healthy eating habits, sticking to an exercise routing to reacting to stressful situations, is learnt from what they see. Reactive parents raise children who are reactive and misbehave to get what they want. Calm parents raise children more likely to stay calm and look for solutions to their problems.

Be positive, avoid anger, constant negativity and criticism as these worsen self-regulation by feeding negative situations.

  1. Exercise!

Getting that little body moving will do wonders for their self-regulation. Exercise increases dopamine levels in the brain which lowers anxiety. It reduces the levels of stress hormones which in turn improves their ability to regulate their emotions. Check out our article on how we get our toddlers body moving, or this amazing 7 minute HIIT workout kids workout for self-regulation

  1. Play games

There are plenty games that encourage self-regulation. Anything that requires taking turns, games such as Simon Says (or as we play, Mommy Says) or Red Light-Green Light.

  1. Teach distractions

That may sound a bit strange, but by distracting them when they are heading to a meltdown you can teach them to do so for themselves. It’s actually been shown that distracting ourselves helps calm anger and impatience! Teach them to focus their attention elsewhere when in a stressful situation – sing a fun song or do a deep breathing technique, read a book or even point out something in their environment that will capture their attention (for Olivia this is usually an animal or insect)

  1. Breathing techniques, meditations and Yoga

These techniques treat the emotion at the source – the brain. Deep breathing calms the region where stress and panic are located. Yoga refocuses energy with movement and breathing.

Try Cosmic Kids Yoga on YouTube or read our article on deep breathing practice for kids here. <- link to breathing blog

Progressive muscle relaxation is an amazing skill to teach which will also help with anxiety right into adulthood! If you can’t imagine how to teach this to a toddler, have a look at this amazing free printable based on the Progressive Muscle Relaxation script from he’ Progressive Muscle Relaxation

  1. Monitor and learn your children

Watch your child and see how they behave when their stress levels are getting too high. They will likely behave differently physically as well as in the way they communicate. This way you can catch a meltdown before it happens and help them self-regulate, or know when you should step back and let them do it independently.

  1. Get them away from temptation or distraction

Willpower is an alien concept for these kiddies, so why put them in a situation that relies on it? Studies have shown that simply avoiding temptation actually works better than willpower when it comes to self-regulation! Think of yourself on a diet, it is much easier not to eat that chocolate if there isn’t any in your house, than avoid it if it is sitting on your kitchen counter. Keep temptation away from your kids to avoid tantrums and keep them focused, teach them to walk away from it (out of sight really does equal out of mind), or even to just close their eyes.

  1. Praise every attempt and progress

I said it at the beginning, and I’ll say it again – this is a slow-going practice that is going to take a long time to develop. Try not to get frustrated. Celebrate every small victory and praise the process (remember your growth mindset!)

  1. Teach them their emotions

If they know what their emotions feel like, they can recognize them, understand why they are feeling them, and regulate them. If they know their emotions, they can better separate the emotion from their identity which will help them control their reaction to it. Do this with games or activities that teach emotional awareness. Here are our favourites

More ideas:

Keep them hydrated – water keeps cortisol levels down
Offer a break, a snack or a drink (h-anger is a very real thing, people!)

Offer them a choice – sometimes it’s just the distraction of having to decide for themselves that will break them out of a meltdown

Do a movement break

Stick to a daily routine, and have a night-time routine

Use a timer (for example, ‘we go inside when the timer goes off’, or ‘we only watch TV until the timer rings’)

Use ‘first-then’ statements (first we have lunch, then we have a treat)

Go for a walk

Get down to their level and ask, ‘What can I do to help you right now?”

Get away from onlookers (an audience can fuel bad behavior and will also affect how you react to it)

Ask them to help you with something they are good at or enjoy

Rock them gently (sometimes they just need a good cuddle)

After a tantrum or meltdown, or even a learning moment when they tried to self-regulate and perhaps failed, sit down with your child and offer alternatives for their behavior. If they struggled with something which led to frustration, let them know that they should ask for help next help. If they got angry and threw something, explain why that is not an acceptable behavior. Only do this once they have calmed down or you risk triggering the behavior again.

What NOT to do:

There are a few things you should absolutely avoid if you want your child to master self-regulating

  1. Never reject their need for consolation (like I said, sometimes they just need a cuddle)
  2. Don’t talk at them or order them to do things when they are struggling with building stress
  3. Don’t punish them. Big emotions are not a crime! Punishing them creates guilt and promotes low self-esteem
  4. Don’t try to control your child. You can’t dictate every minute of the day and how they behave in them. Up to the age of 4, free play is the most important and they learn so much through it.
  5. Don’t go straight to problem solving in the middle of a difficult situation. Your child needs time to actually feel the emotion or they will never understand it. Even if you are late or in a rush or busy or there are people around. You can’t schedule their emotions to show up at a time that is convenient for you.
  6. Don’t ignore it. A trantrum or bad behavior is a form of communication. Yes, they need a better way of communicating, but they aren’t going to learn it by being ignored.
  7. Don’t expect instant results. I can’t say this enough – learning self-regulation is a slow process. If it takes 5 years just to lay the foundation, you can’t expect it to be mastered in 1 afternoon.
  8. Don’t say ‘calm down’ or threaten consequences. I don’t know about you, but the quickest way to get me from mildly annoyed to rip-roaring furious, is to tell me to calm down. The same goes for your toddler. Show them how, don’t tell them to.

And that’s it. there are tons of other ways, I highly recommend that you keep reading up on the subject. Helping your child self-regulate is so important while still being a fairly new idea.

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask. I may not be a qualified doctor or child behavior expert, but I’ve done a ton of research so that you don’t have to!

All my love,


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