Self-Regulation In Children: Definition, Skills, Strategies, And Examples

What Is Self-Regulation In Children, And How Can You Help Improve It?

January 6, 2021 Updated March 5, 2021

self-regulation-children (1)
AaronAmat/Getty Images

As adults, most of us are held to certain standards, including those related to our emotions, behavior, and body movements. We can’t just do, say, act, or move however we want, guided by how we’re feeling at a particular moment or what would best serve our own interests. It sucks; we know. Though we are permitted the occasional slip-up, they’re only really acceptable after we’ve tossed back one too many cocktails. Well, maybe not “acceptable,” but at least overlooked. Small children, on the other hand (we’re looking at you, toddlers), play by their own set of rules. If they want something or are feeling a certain way, they just go for it — even if it means throwing a very loud, very public tantrum. And as jealous as we may be of them, as parents, we can see how irritating that kind of behavior is. So, our natural inclination is to want to do something about it. That would be teaching them self-regulation.

RELATED: Dragon Breathing & Other Emotional Regulation Activities To Try With Your Kids

Of course, by now you’ve probably figured out there isn’t an official parenting handbook that imbues you with every bit of parenting knowledge you need. This may be the first time you’ve even heard mention of self-regulation! But don’t stress, Mama. Here’s what to know about self-regulation in children, including the definition, as well as some skills, strategies, and examples.

Definition of Self-Regulation

In short, self-regulation is the ability to manage your own emotions, behavior, and body movements when faced with challenges and/or triggering situations. Though the concepts sound similar, self-regulation and self-control are not the same things. Related? Yes. Interchangeable? No. Self-control is primarily a social skill used to keep emotions, behaviors, and impulses in check. Self-regulation involves managing these challenges while continuing to pay attention to what is going on around us.

Self-Regulation Skills and Strategies for Kids

Teaching kids self-regulation skills involves helping them first recognize that something is upsetting them, identifying it, and then knowing how to calm themselves down on their own. Most children learn how to self-regulate between the ages of three and seven, though it’s a trial-and-error process with their parents or other caregivers. “How they approach problem-solving and learn from their mistakes and the reactions they get from others has a lot to do with how they learn to self-regulate,” Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge, pediatric mental health expert told Healthline.

So, how do you teach your child effective self-regulation skills and strategies? That’s a great question without a straightforward answer. Because it’s a trial-and-error process, it isn’t something that happens overnight, or that can be accomplished by mastering a set pattern of skills. Instead, as parents, our job is to make our kids feel supported and give them opportunities to work through challenging situations (coaching them if they need it), rather than simply avoiding them.

If you’re looking for more specific strategies, here are a few suggestions, courtesy of PBS:

  • Get your child used to recognizing when they’re upset because they’re tired and/or hungry, providing them with examples of ways to deal with it without having a tantrum.
  • Make sure your child has plenty of time — and ideally space — to run around and play outdoors. It’ll help them get rid of excess energy and calm down after spending some time in the fresh air.
  • Blow bubbles for 10 or 15 minutes as a way to get your child to focus on their breathing and to slow down for a bit.
  • Read books with kids and then talk about the characters, their emotions, and why they behave in certain ways.

Examples of Self-Regulation in Children

Generally speaking, self-regulation in children can take many forms, including:

  • Regulating their reactions to emotions like frustration or excitement
  • Calming themselves down after something exciting or upsetting happens
  • Being able to focus on a task
  • Refocusing their attention on a new task
  • Controlling their impulses
  • Learning behavior that helps them play well with others

In practice, self-regulation in children could include anything from not throwing a tantrum when they don’t get their way to deciding not to knock over a tower their friend has made out of blocks — even if they really, really want to.

Self-regulation activities for toddlers

There are tons of ways to teach your child self-regulation through fun activities. It’s important for kids to learn how to manage their emotions and bodies. Putting thought into your actions and how they affect others is a big part of growing up, and thankfully there’s an enjoyable way to practice.

  • Have a freeze dance party! When the music is on, the kids can dance and show off their best moves, but when the song stops, everyone must freeze. This game encourages your child to dance wildly and then find the control to stop.
  • Musical chairs can get wild, but it’s a great game that teaches kids to pay attention. While the music is on, your child must walk around the chairs, but when it stops, they need to find a chair to sit in. This game rewards kids for shifting between two very different actions.
  • In the loud or quiet game, the leader calls out loud or quiet. When they say loud, the children can make as much noise as they want. But, when the leader says quiet, the kids must lower their voices or switch to snapping or whispering.