Self-regulation is an essential emotional and cognitive capacity that we call upon in our daily lives in any situation that causes us challenge and discomfort. Self regulation (whether conscious or unconscious) reduces our level of distress and pain and reestablishes our equilibrium.
Self-regulation is the ability to monitor and manage your energy states, emotions, thoughts, and behaviors that may produce positive results. Self-regulation strategies develop over a lifetime yet we need to teach, practice, and model them to our children as early as possible.
We need to help our children manage their disruptive emotions and impulses and increase their self regulation. This includes executive function (control in the brain), emotion-regulation (managing our feelings) as well as behavioral regulation (management of actions & movement). All of these together make up a set of abilities called self-regulation skills.
Controlling impulses underlies all of the social and cognitive skills children are learning which is why I think it is the most important life skill to teach our children. We all want our children to have good friends, to be able to learn, to be good at solving problems, to enjoy life, and to savor the good moments.
The following are steps to help with regulation:
1. Help your child recognize the higher-goal.
The higher goal is usually about empathy, social relationships, or learning.
Most impulse control boils down to this:
Controlling an impulse in order to meet a higher goal.
Why don’t we grab the toy away from our friend? Because we want to get along with our friends. Why do we go to bed early and get a certain number of hours of sleep? So our body and brain are refreshed and healthy and ready to learn the next day.
2. Use naturally occurring situations to teach self-regulation strategies.
Things like waiting to open holiday presents, taking turns with a prized toy, and being quiet while a story is read aloud at the library are all examples of natural situations which are teachable moments for self-regulation skills.
These situations are truly challenging for younger children. Before the event or situation, explain the expectations and the higher-goal. Then, in the moment, help them be able to meet that goal. Give them the strategies to regulate their impulses.
Studies have shown that it isn’t about the child having the sheer willpower to control impulses, but instead having lots of strategies to help them regulate those impulses.
If your child is having a hard time taking turns, you can try setting a timer. That provides them with a more concrete cue to help them regulate.
Also, using the term taking turns, is much more concrete than sharing. Having some activities that kids can do together can help too. If your child needs to wait, do something else with them, tell a silly joke, point out interesting colors or things, count backwards form 50…..
If your child is waiting for a special treat, or even just at a restaurant, do something else with them such as tell a story, play I spy, imagine what special dessert they can create.
You are helping them build regulation strategies they will use their whole life.
3. Acknowledge the challenge of regulation.
This is hard for kids. If they struggle, acknowledge it. If they get frustrated, acknowledge it, “Sometimes it feels hard to wait. When you are waiting you can do something else.” When I tell my son he has to wait for something special, I acknowledge that it is hard, I also acknowledge his desire (impulse), and offer a strategy to help him regulate.
4. Have your child make a choice and a plan.
Cognitively, a well-regulated older child would be able to look through a set of options and make a reasoned decision. Or, faced with a wide array of possibilities, that child could make a plan. Our goal is for our children to develop well-regulated thought processes. To be able to sort through the chaos, so to speak, and inhibit distractions.
Give your child choices throughout the day. Do you want to walk to the playground or play in the backyard? Will you have juice or water? Which pair of shoes will you wear today? Providing your child with plenty of opportunities for making choices gives them the practice they need to develop decision-making skills and gives them a sense of mastery over their own life.
Give your child the opportunity to make a plan. This morning we are staying at home and we can do any of these things-what would you like to do first, second and third?
Have each child have a day to plan activities, transportation to those activities, and the schedule of the day. I think this is a great activity for older kids. But younger children can plan to - like what they would like to do when they get to the playground or a museum. These kinds of things are great exercises for cognitive regulation.
5. Play games that focus on self-regulation skills.
People often ask me but how do I teach my child self-regulation. This isn’t something you can tell your child how to do. It is something they have to learn by doing and by practicing. Games present all kinds of challenges that are important for self-regulation. The basic definition of a game is to control impulses to meet a higher-goal (win the game!) and it can be fun! It doesn’t feel like you are practicing self-regulation.
Any game that asks kids to control something is fostering self-regulation. Like a the dance and freeze game, Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes, Simon Says, and for older kids , chess is a wonderful game for teaching cognition regulation. Playing board games or card games is another way that allows children a chance to practice things like taking turns, remembering rules, paying attention, shifting from one focus to another, and inhibiting impulses.
6. Remember self-regulation skills develop over a lifetime.
Helping your child develop these skills will stay with them their whole life.
It feels like it takes a lifetime to learn because we are all still developing them. In fact, I think parenting is a perfect example for us to learn skills that we might have forgotten!
All those teachable moments will add up over the time. There may be times when you feel like you don’t see any progress - it develops gradually. It is one of those things where you’ll see effects much later. This is where it is important to teach your child that it takes time for a brain to grow and they will have to try and try again to master things they want to learn, games they want to play, and more.
Another big piece of self control is being aware of the present moment. As adults, we have learned self soothing or regulation strategies that sometimes are healthy and sometimes not. When we see our children develop healthy strategies make sure we put positive attention on them - recognize their growth.