Self-Regulation in Children: Your A-To-Z Guide

If your child routinely struggles to control and direct his thoughts, feelings, and actions — you’re in the right place. 

That’s because in this post we’re going to explain everything you need to know about self-regulation, all of its different types, and the steps you can take as a parent to help your child. 

Let’s dive right in. 

What Is Self Regulation?

Being human, we are all different. All of us act in our own unique way. The way we feel when we hear, see or touch something is equally unique as well. 

As such, we all have our own unique strategies when it comes to controlling our emotions, behaviors, and most importantly, our actions — and that’s what self-regulation is in a nutshell.

Self-regulation is typically divided into the following 3 broad areas:

1. Cognitive Regulation

Cognitive regulation allows children to concentrate on the task at hand, which is essential for developing problem-solving skills.

2. Sensory Regulation

Sensory regulation, as the name suggests, allows children to develop an appropriate level of alertness. It helps them regulate their senses, thus enabling them to respond appropriately to their environment.

3. Emotional Regulation

It’s the ability to control emotions in a sticky situation through initiating, inhibiting, or modulating the behavior in a socially acceptable manner. 

Put another way, emotional regulation is our ability to control our actions and handle tough social situations with logic and common sense.

Problems that Occur If a Child Has Trouble Self Regulating

Children who struggle with self-regulation often face the following difficulties:

  • Heightened reactivity to touch, sound, or movement.
  • Under-reactivity to certain sensations, such as not noticing being touched or called out.
  • Inattentive to what’s happening around them and appear to be lost in their “own world”.
  • Exert too much force on simple tasks, such as walking too fast or writing too forcefully.
  • Become distressed when they’re performing self-care tasks such as cutting nails, combing hair, or taking a bath.
  • Prefer to play on their own rather than playing with other children because they find it difficult to engage with their peers.

What Happens If You Don’t Treat a Child With Regulation Problems?

When a child with regulation problems isn’t treated, they may struggle with the following:

  • Making and keeping friends
  • Behaving inappropriately
  • Anxiety and stress
  • Social awkwardness

If your child is showing similar behavior, and you’re both stressed and worried, then please take a deep breath and relax. That’s because the good news is, as a parent, there’s a lot you can do to help your child build his self-regulation skills. 

How Can Parents Help?

Use the following 5 strategies to help your child regulate his emotions:

1. Explain to him what self-regulation is all about

The more your child knows about self-regulation, the better he can cope with his feelings.

So discuss everything you can about self-regulation with your child. This way, your child knows what he’s dealing with and can make the adjustments needed to self-regulate properly.

2. Encourage him to talk about his feelings

It’s important that you talk about your kid’s feelings with him. You should encourage him to speak aloud when he feels happy, sad, tired, or excited so that you can know what is causing him to act out. 

For instance, encourage him to say, “I am tired and having a hard time paying attention” when he is having trouble concentrating on homework or any other task.

By doing this, you can identify what causes your child to become upset, angry, or frustrated. You can then simply eliminate the cause or find an alternate solution if that’s not possible.

3. Try to identify what he is feeling

Try to identify how your child is feeling and then talk to him about it. For instance, you can say “you look really tired. Do you want to go to bed?” or “You look really upset. Is something bothering you?”.

4. Help him find what he enjoys

The more your kid enjoys his activities, the more calm, happy, and energetic he will be throughout the day. So try new foods, activities, and sources of entertainment and add the ones he likes to his routine.

5. Create a sensory diet

Providing a sensory diet will help your child remain calm and relaxed throughout the day. It’s important to note here that your child’s teachers, caregivers, therapist, and the family doctor should all be consulted to create a suitable sensory diet.

Typically, sensory diets include some of the following:

  • Lotion rubs
  • Calming music
  • Vibrating massages
  • Jumping on a trampoline
  • Weighted laboratory blankets or vests
  • Physically challenging activities such as rolling a heavy ball or watering plants with a heavy jug. 

How Can an Occupational Therapist Help?

When you visit an occupational therapist (OT), he will start by evaluating your child’s self-regulation abilities and behavior. Following the evaluation, the therapist will explain to you why your child is having trouble controlling his feelings.

He will then create a treatment program tailored to your child’s needs. In this program, the therapist will treat your child with the help of sensory challenges.

After a few therapy sessions, your child will have a much better understanding and control over his emotions, behaviors, and actions.

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