What is self-regulation?
Self-regulation is the ability to understand and manage your behaviour and your reactions to feelings and things happening around you.
It includes being able to:
- regulate reactions to strong emotions like frustration, excitement, anger and embarrassment
- calm down after something exciting or upsetting
- focus on a task
- refocus attention on a new task
- control impulses
- behave in ways that help you get along with other people.
Why self-regulation is important
As your child grows, self-regulation helps them:
- learn at school – because self-regulation gives your child the ability to sit and listen in the classroom
- behave in socially acceptable ways – because self-regulation gives your child the ability to control impulses
- make friends – because self-regulation gives your child the ability to take turns in games and conversation, share toys, and express emotions in appropriate ways
- become more independent – because self-regulation gives your child the ability to make appropriate decisions about behaviour and learn how to behave in new situations with less guidance from you.
How and when self-regulation develops
Children develop self-regulation through warm and responsive relationships. They also develop it by watching the adults around them.
Self-regulation starts when children are babies. It develops most in the toddler and preschool years, but it also keeps developing right into adulthood.
For example, babies might suck their fingers for comfort or look away from their caregivers if they need a break from attention or are getting tired.
Toddlers can wait short times for food and toys. But toddlers might still snatch toys from other children if it’s something they really want. And tantrums happen when toddlers are overwhelmed by strong emotions.
Preschoolers are starting to know how to play with other children and understand what’s expected of them. For example, a preschooler might try to speak in a soft voice if you’re at the movies.
School-age children are getting better at controlling their own wants and needs, imagining other people’s perspectives and seeing both sides of a situation. This means, for example, that they might be able to disagree with other children without having an argument.
Preteens and teenagers are better at planning, sticking with difficult tasks, behaving in socially appropriate ways, and considering how their behaviour affects other people. For example, your teenage child might think about your perspective when they’re negotiating with you about their curfew.
Children who typically feel things strongly and intensely find it harder to self-regulate. It isn’t as hard for children who are more easygoing. Even older children and teenagers sometimes struggle with self-regulation.
Helping children and teenagers learn and practise self-regulation
Here are some practical ways you can help your child learn and practise self-regulation:
- Work on your child’s skills for understanding and managing emotions.
- Use calming down strategies for toddlers, calming down steps for preschoolers and school-age children and calming down steps for pre-teens and teenagers.
- Plan for challenging situations where it might be hard for younger children to behave well. For example, ‘The shop we’re going to has lots of things that can break. It’s OK to look, but please don’t touch’. Give your child a gentle reminder as you enter the shop. For example, ‘Remember – just looking, OK?’
- Involve pre-teens and teenagers in problem-solving and negotiating difficult situations. For example, ‘I'm working all weekend, so I know it’ll be boring for you. Let’s figure out how you can make the most of the time’.
- Praise your child when they show self-regulation and manage a tricky situation. For example, ‘You were great at waiting for your turn’, or ‘I liked the way that you shared with Sam when he asked’.
- Try to model self-regulation for your child. For example, ‘I’d really like to keep gardening, but if I don’t clean up now I won’t get you to soccer on time’. Or ‘Let me write that on the calendar so I don’t forget’.
It’s important to match your expectations of behaviour to your child’s age and stage of development. This can help your child avoid the frustration that comes with not having the skills or understanding to do what they’re asked.
Problems with self-regulation
From time to time, different things can affect your child’s ability to self-regulate.
For example, tiredness, illness and changes to your child’s routine can all affect your child’s ability to regulate their reactions and behaviour. Also, some children have great self-regulation at child care, school or sport, but find it hard at home. Other children struggle in busy, noisy places like shopping centres. And as children get older, self-regulation might be challenging if they have a lot of assessment tasks or relationship difficulties.
Although these problems with self-regulation are fairly typical, it’s a good idea to speak with a professional if you’re worried about your child’s behaviour or you’re having trouble with your child’s behaviour as they get older. For example, you could talk to your GP, your child and family health nurse, or your child’s child care educator or teacher.
Consider seeking professional help if your child:
- seems to have more tantrums or difficult behaviour than other children of the same age
- is behaving in difficult or out-of-control ways more often as they get older
- is behaving in ways that are dangerous for themselves or others
- is difficult to discipline and your strategies for encouraging positive behaviour don’t seem to be working
- is very withdrawn and has a lot of trouble interacting with others
- doesn’t seem to have as many communication and social skills as other children of the same age.
If your child has challenging behaviour and is also autistic or has a disability, talk with the professionals who work with your child. They’ll be able to suggest ways to encourage positive behaviour and to help your child learn self-regulation skills.