How To Teach Kids Self-Regulation Skills
Learn how to teach your children to manage their emotions by using self regulation skills.
A life skill, or set of skills, that is so important to teach our children, is the skill of self-regulation.
To call it one skill though is a little bit of a misconception.
Self-Regulation requires one to possess the ability to control behaviors, thoughts, impulses, movements, and feelings.
It’s quite amazing to see how many adults do not have self-regulation skills.
I myself didn’t possess proper self-regulation skills until I had children and learned that this is a skill I need to have, so I went ahead and learned these skills.
Self-regulation should be something that children learn when they are growing up. It’s a much harder thing to balance as a grown-up.
In this article, I want to share some things that helped me become a better parent by learning self-regulation skills as an adult and how I am also teaching this to my own children.
*This post may contain affiliate links. Full disclosure here.
*This information is for educational purposes only, if you need medical attention, please consult a physician.
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What Is Self-Regulation?
So what does self-regulation actually mean?
Well, it has a lot to do with emotional development and learning how to control emotions, control brain activity, and actions too.
It’s amazing what you can do with yourself when you can self-regulate.
For example, as a young adult, I used to have these flying dreams. I would fly for hours and then suddenly I would be falling. Falling dreams are the worst; they really scare me!
But, because I was having these falling dreams so frequently, I actually was able to train my brain to recognize that this is a dream, I’m ok, and I should wake up.
I am now able to wake up as soon as I start the fall.
So how does this apply to kids?
Well, teaching children how to control their emotions when they get into a heated situation is a huge part of self-regulation.
Teaching kids how to resist reactions and how to calm down when upset and generally how to handle life and adjust to situations on the fly without getting upset about it is all part of this regulation stuff.
Let’s take the marshmallow test for example. It is when a lab technician asks a child if they would like one or two marshmallows. The children often say they would like to eat two of them.
The scientist then lets the child know that they can in fact have two marshmallows when he comes back into the room, as long as the child does not eat the one marshmallow left in the room with them.
What the scientist is trying to do is see if a toddler has the ability to control the impulse to eat one marshmallow, because there is the promise of a second marshmallow.
If the child is able to wait for the second marshmallow to arrive before indulging in such a lovely treat, then that child is practicing self-regulation.
Learning how to deal with these impulses, is very important.
We want our children to have the ability to make good choices when it comes to making friends, staying safe and having fun.
Science says that children who possess self-regulation skill sets are more sociable and have better grades.
Ways to Teach Your Child Self-Regulation
Help Your Child Visualize And Realize What The End Goal Is
Children often like to see instant results, and therefore waiting for things is really quite tricky.
We know this from all the research completed in the marshmallow test.
You can help your child learn self-regulation by letting her wait her turn for a toy by letting her know she will get the toy if she waits.
You can also let your child know that sharing toys with friends who visit is ok, and when friends leave your home, she will have all her toys to herself again.
This is how you teach impulse control.
You want to let your child know that screaming inside the library will disrupt all the other people in there. Your child may not know on their own that the outcome of his screaming will be unhappy people.
The end goal is to feel empathy and develop proper social relationships.
You are helping your child realize the end goal, and are providing them with an alternative to deal with their impulses.
Use Daily Situations To Teach Regulation Strategies
Situations like waiting for a turn on the TV, blowing out candles on the birthday cake when the song is finished, and asking to pet a dog when out on a walk are all situations where these strategies can be taught.
None of those situations are easy for kids to deal with.
I mean waiting for a turn on the TV? What will they do until it is their turn?
You, as a parent, may have solutions for filling their time until the TV is available, but the child will have a difficult time understanding that anything could be as fun as that TV show they are anticipating.
If you can explain what the expectation of the situation is, the end goal, your child will have a better understanding as to what kind of behavior is expected of them.
You’re not out to teach them about willpower. You are there to provide guidance through difficult situations where impulses should be controlled.
When you strengthen these skills daily, you are helping your little one come up with strategies that will transfer into their adult lives.
Let Them Know You Understand The Situation Is Hard
Waiting is very hard for kids. Let your child know you understand that waiting is hard.
Empathize with them and even redirect their attention to something else so that the waiting part of things is not so difficult.
Sometimes taking your mind off things really helps.
For some children, regulating their emotions and impulses can be more difficult.
This book, How To Talk So Little Kids Will Listen, was my lifesaver. It taught me so much about emphasizing with my children and letting them feel their feelings.
When you can emphasize with your little one and let them know that you understand things are hard, you create this crazy strong bond with your child which helps when redirecting their attention.
For example, strong-willed children have so many great qualities that will help them thrive in adulthood, but during childhood, they need to focus on learning self-regulation.
W must also not forget to help our children tackle the hard stuff and overcome challenges.
This is called cognitive hardiness and is very much linked to self-regulation. See my eight tips for dealing with the “I Can’t Do It” attitude – here.
Help Your Child Make Choices And A Plan Of Action
We want our children to be able to regulate themselves when triggered by a situation and be able to sort through the chaos and come out on top.
You can teach it by giving your child choices throughout the day.
A child who has regulation skills in place can look at multiple options and make a decision without getting overwhelmed. That child can also make a plan of action based on their decision.
A child who has yet to learn self-regulation skillets can easily be overwhelmed by too many choices and all thinking can go out the window (and straight into a tantrum.)
You can start teaching these regulation skills when the child is in toddlerhood, which will make it easier for them to make harder decisions later on.
The goal is to allow our children to make choices and evaluate them in order to create a plan of action. No child is too young to make a choice, as long as they can point to the choices they are presented with.
Your toddler can choose to have a blue cup or a red cup, play outside in the yard or at the park, put on spiderman shoes or dragon shoes.
These kinds of choices may seem so little to us right now, but to your child, these choices give them control over a situation they usually have no control over.
Having access to these kinds of choices allows your child to practice decision making skills which become an essential part of life when your kids grow up.
You can also help your child create a plan of action.
If you have a morning at home, offer up 3 activities for your child to complete and ask which order the activities should be done.
Have your older children plan which exhibits you will see first when you visit a Museum.
Play Games To Learn Self-Regulation
Playing board games is another way that allows children a chance to practice things like remembering rules, taking turns, and practicing not getting upset in a losing situation.
Playing games helps your children practice those self-regulation skills when situations aren’t occuring naturally.
Children learn by practicing and self-regulation is a difficult thing to teach which is why games are a brilliant way to help strengthen those skills.
Games can be super fun and even though it doesn’t feel like you are teaching your little one any lessons during your family game night, you definately are.
Children have to learn to take turns with board games, use quiet voices to tell other family members super-secret information, and follow (and remember) basic rules.
Great games to play with little kids are Freeze Dancing, Simon Says, Red Light, Green Light, and other interactive games.
Help kids become self-reflective
Allow your children to self-reflect on the times they were able to self-regulate. Let your child know they did an awesome job when they waited for the red crayon on the playdate.
This allows your child to think back on their situation and realize that they did the right thing.
If your child showed the wrong impulse control such as a tantrum or overreaction, then explain to your child why that reaction was not effective.
Open communication here is KEY.
Self Regulation Worksheets
What Is Self-Regulation Theory?
The definition of the self-regulation theory:
Self-regulation theory (SRT) is a system of conscious personal management that involves the process of guiding one’s own thoughts, behaviors, and feelings to reach goals. Self-regulation consists of several stages, and individuals must function as contributors to their own motivation, behavior, and development within a network of reciprocally interacting influences.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-regulation_theory
Basically, it helps set standards of desirable behavior, helps with motivation to meet standards, the ability to monitor situations and thoughts that precede breaking those standards, and also strong willpower.
The Self-Regulatory Model
The self regulation model is quite simple really and it goes like this:
Trigger – > Understanding -> Response -> Outcome -> Adjustment
Trigger: Something happens that provokes a reaction.
Understanding: Making sense of the situation.
Response: Figuring out how to respond appropriately to the trigger.
Outcome: The result of the response.
Adjustment: If anything needs to be done differently next time, make a note and hopefully adjust the response in the future.
What does emotional dysregulation look like?
A lot of children react instantly to triggers because they do not yet know how to self-regulate. Sometimes the reaction is vast and strong, and there is little to no buildup to the big emotions, such as a meltdown or tantrum.
A child who cannot inhibit the initial response has emotional dysregulation.
Don’t worry, though, it’s totally normal for kids, that’s why you’re here, to learn how to teach it to them, right?
Why do some kids struggle with self-regulation?
Sometimes children have a tough time self-regulating simply because of their personality.
If something is bothersome, they will let you know in any way they can, as soon as possible.
Other times, parents can trigger a lack of self-regulation by giving into tantrums often, or soothing too much after distress. By providing outside regulation, inner self-regulation doesn’t happen.
I think this is a fine line though; you should comfort your children, I am all for that.
Throwing a child in their room to learn to self-regulate is the old way of thinking and how I grew up. It’s not very helpful, and honestly, it brings out resentment from the child to the parent.
Children who resent their parents aren’t very good listeners and can make your parenting journey a complete nightmare.
Related: What is authoritative parenting
How and when self-regulation develops
Warm and positive relationships help children self regulate. Isn’t that great news! Go positive parenting.
Children learn a lot by watching the adults around them and how they behave.
Basically, monkey see- monkey do.
The act of learning to self-regulate starts when children are babies.
Babies can suck their thumbs if they need some comfort or look away from caregivers if they are getting tired.
During toddlerhood, self-regulation is developed when children have to wait for the meals and take turns playing with toys.
This is when tantrums happen! Children do not yet know how to handle their emotions at this stage.
During the preschool stage, children learn how to play with other kids nicely and how to get along. This is where more self-regulation skills are learned.
By the time kids get to school, they should be able to have a disagreement with another classmate without lashing out.
When children learn these skills at young ages, they can regulate their emotions through teenage hood and into adulthood.
I think we can all agree that a teenager that is able to handle their emotions is a lot easier to deal with than one who cannot.
Self-Regulation Skills and Sensory Processing Issues
I’m not a childhood expert, so take this with a grain of salt and do your own hard research on this subject, but I do believe that children with sensory processing issues or challenges will need extra guidance with learning self-regulation.
Here are some resources for you:
– Kids who are overwhelmed will have a difficult time self-regulating so it is important to introduce the teaching of regulation slowly and at young ages.
– It takes time to develop these skills
– Play games and allow the learning of self-regulation to occur naturally
- Self Regulation Model: https://positivepsychology.com/self-regulation/
- Emotional Dysregulation: https://rogersbh.org/emotional-dysregulation-facts
- Self Regulation and Sensory Processing: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08870449808407425
- Mind does really matter: Evidence from neuroimaging studies of emotional self-regulation, psychotherapy, and placebo effect: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301008207000123
- Parenting and self‐regulation in preschoolers: a meta‐analysis: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/icd.478