How To Teach Kids Self Regulation Skills

Inside this post: Learn how to teach your children to manage their emotions by using self-regulation skills.

self-regulation child development

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.

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.

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.

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 huge 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 nice, 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 tat 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. Super normal.

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.

Related: The Secret To Raising Your Kids To Listen To You

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:

Helping Your Child With Self-Regulation Skills

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 difficult. You can help you child wait their turn for a toy by letting them know they will get the toy if they wait.

This is all about teaching impulse control.

You want to let your child know that screaming inside the library will cause a disruption to 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.

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.

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.

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. Empathise with them and even redirect their attention to something else so that the waiting part of things is not so dofficult.

Sometimes taking your mind off things really helps.

For some children, regulating their emotions and impulses can be more difficult. For example, strong-willed children have so many great qualities that will help them thrive in adulthood, but during childhood, they really 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 8 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.

How do we teach this when they are younger?

You can teach it by giving your child choices throughout the day.

They 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 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 normally have no control over.

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.

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


Elizabeth is a mom of 2 and has a passion for helping children reach their human potential. She enjoys helping parents raise confident and healthy kids by explaining how to handle situations using positive parenting.

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