Self-Regulation & Your Child’s Path to Daily Happiness

self regulation and your child's path to daily happiness

Takeaway: Self-regulation refers to your child’s ability to manage her inner self and how she reacts to situations. The better her self-regulation skills, the happier she’ll feel and the easier it will be to make friends and do well at school. To teach your child how to manage herself better, help her name the emotions she’s feeling and use an appropriate coping strategy to handle these emotions.    

Fitting into society takes a lot of self-control. And this is something children quickly figure out.

Every child learns to not act on impulses. For example, a bored student sitting in class has to curb her impulse to play outside. Or, if she disagrees with a friend, she knows not to say mean and hurtful things in anger. Even at home, she makes an effort to listen to you and follow your instructions. All these tasks mean putting what she needs to do ahead of what she feels like doing.

But self-control is part of something bigger — specifically, the psychological process of self-regulation.

Self-control and self-regulation might sound the same, but they’re not. Think of self-control as a tool children use to ‘fit in’ better. It’s mainly about controlling impulses. Self-regulation, on the other hand, is a much more fundamental skill. It’s about understanding yourself and your inner drives, needs, and feelings — and using this understanding to manage your reactions to whatever is happening to you.

If self-control is about what you choose to do or not do, self-regulation is the why.

A restless child who decides to not be disruptive in class is using self-control to conform. But there’s a complex tangle of inner thoughts, feelings, and energy states inside her which fuel this self-control. And self-regulation is about understanding and managing this intimidating inner world. The better she can do this, the better the decisions she’ll make. For example, if she tries to explore why she’s restless (rather than just suppressing the feeling), she’ll get much more out of the situation. She might go beyond merely keeping quiet and begin to engage with whatever the teacher is discussing.

Psychologists identify three components to self-regulation: alertness, thinking, and emotions.

Self-regulation involves three components that tie into each other.

  • Alertness is about finding the right energy levels for a situation. For example, wanting to run around in Maths class isn’t ideal, but neither is being introspective and reflective in the middle of PE.
  • Thinking clearly regardless of distractions is another skill a self-regulated child will develop. She’ll use her alertness to focus on the task at hand and solve problems.
  • Emotions can get in the way of even the most alert and focused mind. So, a well-regulated child knows how to recognise and process what she’s feeling. For example, if she loses a game, she’ll know how to handle her frustration without picking a fight with her opponent.

Children refine these components through practice and feedback.

Self-regulation is about balancing our immediate, emotional reactions with more logical and reasoned thinking. And young children outsource this balancing act to their parents. (For example, it’s the parent who has to help calm down a screaming child.) But through trial and error, children begin to take charge of this role. They’ll act a certain way, note how their parents react, and tweak their response accordingly. So, if Mummy says ‘No!’ when they kick a sibling, they’ll kick a toy next time and watch Mummy’s reaction. This sort of experimentation is most intense between ages 3 to 7 but continues long afterwards, too.

The better a child gets at regulating herself, the happier she becomes.

Self-regulation might be challenging, but children quickly learn how important it is. First, it’s liberating not to be on a rollercoaster ride of emotions — for example, a child who learns to stay calm while angry will soon notice the anger fading away. And this feels better than throwing a tantrum, getting even more upset, and then being punished. Second, self-regulation will also help her make friends because she’s more even-keeled and pleasant to be around. And finally, it’ll make life easier because it sharpens her thinking skills. So, she’ll do better in class, handle conflict more intelligently, choose smarter life paths, and take care of her mental health.

Unfortunately, some children struggle with self-regulation more than others. And it’s often hard to figure out why.

It takes time to understand why a child struggles with self-regulation because there are so many contributing factors. First, there’s a biological component. Some children are easily overwhelmed by sights, sounds, and smells  (e.g., children with autism spectrum disorder). And this is a constant source of stress. Some have underdeveloped executive functions, making it harder to stay focused (e.g., children with ADHD). And others find it hard to self-soothe, which is an important precursor to self-regulation. Then, there are skill-related factors. For example, a child who hasn’t developed her language and social skills will find herself easily frustrated when trying to make friends. And finally, there’s the issue of practice and guidance. Some children simply need more help learning to self-regulate than others. It’s not that they are inherently incapable of learning the necessary skills — they just haven’t been taught in a way that works for them.

The secret to teaching self-regulation is to help your child get in touch with her emotions.

Children struggle most with emotions, so your first task is to teach your child to recognise and name emotions as they arise. For example, if she can’t tell the difference between feeling ‘surprised’ and ‘afraid,’ how will she know how to respond? Often, you’ll need to help her recognise the way emotions show up in her body. For example, you could ask her what it’s like to feel anxious. “Is it like having butterflies in your stomach? Or like having a weight on your chest?” Children who experience intense emotions hate the physical sensations so much that they unwittingly numb themselves to the experience. So, you’ll want to help them reconnect with these sensations and use coping skills for emotional regulation.

If you’re concerned about your child’s self-regulation, we can help.

In earlier posts, we’ve covered how things like mindfulness training and psychotherapy can nurture self-regulation. But our specialists have a range of other strategies, too. At The Ed Psych Practice, we offer face-to-face and online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem-solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and colleges in London. We have psychologists, paediatricians, and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support.

Want to see how else you can help your child? You might enjoy some of our other posts.

Image Credit: Girl vector created by brgfx –

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *