As a parent, you want to teach your child all the skills needed to make a friend, resolve a conflict, or ‘think before they act’. But before they can even achieve these social and emotional milestones, your child first needs to develop the foundational skill of self-regulation.
So what is self-regulation?
Self-regulation is our ability to manage our behaviours, actions, thoughts, and feelings to remain calm and alert in situations. It refers to our ability to respond, instead of reacting when we experience stress and unpleasant emotions in our everyday life.
How can we teach our little ones how to self-regulate?
As self-regulation is an early childhood developmental milestone- it’s important to start early. One way we can support our child’s development of self-regulation is through something called co-regulation.
What is co-regulation and where do you start?
Co-regulation is the process that helps children to self-regulate (self-soothe) and unpleasant emotions and sensations from the beginning of their life. It is the connection with nurturing and reliable primary caregivers that use their voice, movement, and gestures to help our little one’s feel calm and regulated. As children grow up with co-regulation during stressful times, they begin to internalize these strategies for self-regulation. The need for co-regulation evolves throughout the lifespan, although for those with healthy early development, co-regulation decreases as the child can use these skills to self-soothe all by themselves.
Co-regulation can occur between anyone and isn’t just between parents and their children, for example, between siblings, extended family, friends, etc. If you’re a parent of more than 1 child, you may notice that when both your children are together, they can energise (or heighten) one another’s behavior. This is an example of co-regulation, and the same can happen for adults as well.
What happens when our kids are unable to self-regulate?
Self-regulation helps our children calm themselves down and problem solve, hence if our child struggles with self-regulating, this can present as tantrums and meltdowns. This then impacts the child’s ability to develop meaningful relationships, communicate, and succeed in work and school. Some children struggle to co-regulate and self-regulate and this can be due to sensory-motor difficulties with either energising their body up or calming their body down. This is commonly seen in children living on the autism spectrum or living with anxiety as they can have difficulties following and identifying patterns, and therefore their social interactions can be unpredictable. Due to this uncertainty and unpredictability in social situations, some children may be inclined to withdraw from social settings or try and take full control of the interaction. Some children who find it difficult to co-regulate may show attempts to gain control of an activity such as, not allowing turn-taking, difficulty sharing toys, showing self-oriented behaviours, and fluctuating energy levels.
If you are thinking that your child does some trouble self-regulating, not to worry- Here are some strategies you can use to assist your child develop self-regulation:
Coregulation: As discussed earlier, when self-regulation or co-regulation doesn’t work, your child may become dysregulated. When this occurs it’s really important to try a different co-regulating approach. For example, staying in the moment with them, empathising with facial gestures, and accepting the expression of their feelings rather than focusing on their behaviours.
Sensory diet: If you’re wondering what a sensory diet is, it is a term used by Occupational Therapists to describe an individualised, tailored program that involves various sensory activities to be completed at different times in the day. An Occupational Therapists can assist with this as it varies from child to child, and one child’s sensory diet can look very different from other children. A sensory diet can include proprioceptive (deep pressure), vestibular (swinging back and forth), oral (deep breathing and chew toys), auditory (calming, slow, rhythmic music), or visual input (natural lighting). For more information about sensory diets, visit https://steppingstonesforchildren.com.au/2021/09/13/sensory-modulation-challenges-and-how-occupational-therapy-can-help/
Manage your own stress, remain calm and model self-regulation: Make sure that your own needs are met so you can support your own child the best way you can. When children are reacting rather than regulating, their brains are in survival mode. It’s best to try not to speak with them as they are unable to respond to reason and logic. At this moment you can help by providing a safe space and staying calm, and later on once they’ve calm down, you can guide them through sensory and comforting strategies to help them become more self-aware.
Reduce your expectations: It’s super important to meet your child where they are at and decide where they need support. For e.g., do they need help with following instructions, increasing self-awareness, and feedback? It’s important to remember that younger children are still developing regulation strategies and therefore will be less able to regulate themselves compared to a neurotypical 12-year-old. Keep your demands age-appropriate and expect setbacks during the learning experience.
Provide structure and consistency: Keep your children in the loop with what’s expected of them, for e.g., rules, routines, planning. This predictability helps to decrease stress and therefore increase energy levels to regulate. Keeping a regular routine for sleep, a balanced diet, regular exercise, and plan for activities they enjoy are essential for regulation.
Promote self-awareness and identifying emotions: Talk to your child about naming their feelings and how they can change their body to change their feelings. For e.g., if the child is feeling sad, have them find something that makes them feel happy. This allows the child to problem solve and develop their own personal ways to help self-regulate (see below).
Have your child develop their own toolbox of coping strategies: This idea is to help them stop, remain calm, and think before reacting to their big emotion. Some coping strategies could include:
- Physical breaks (stretch, walk, dance)
- Mental breaks (music, colouring, games, creativity)
- Spiritual breaks (yoga, mindfulness)
- Grounding break (deep breathing, visual imagery)
- Sensory break (deep pressure, movement, touch, sound)
- Positive self-talk (positive affirmations)
- Social break (time alone, or even support from peer or parent)
Give immediate feedback: Focus on the effort put forward rather than the outcome. Try not to use the word ‘failure’ and instead reframe it as an opportunity for learning and growth for next time.
Refrain from punishing dysregulated behavior: Instead of enforcing consequences for dysregulated behaviour, it’s important to understand that it’s not the child’s fault. Use this as a starting point to understand where your child needs help and remember that punishment for dysregulation does not give the child skills needed to self-regulate.
Use positive reinforcement and praise: Celebrate the small wins! Use praise to motivate your child to learn and practice regulation.
If you are concerned about your child’s self-regulation development and feel like their need extra help, you can speak to an Occupational Therapist from our team for more information.
Children’s Social and Emotional Development Starts with Co-Regulation. (2021). Retrieved 12 December 2021, from https://www.nichq.org/insight/childrens-social-and-emotional-development-starts-co-regulation
Belford, D 2012, Co-Regulation and Self-Regulation, Center for Development and Disability, The University of New Mexico
Author: Serena Rudd
Paediatric Occupational Therapist
Editor: Michelle Newby BHSc(OT) MSc PhD Candidate
Paediatric Occupational Therapist
Copyright Stepping Stones Therapy for Children 2022/23