By Vasiliki Siomos, University of Toronto Health Studies Student

Edited by Lizette Alexander OT Reg. (Ont.) with appreciation!

What is self-regulation and why is it important?

 Self-regulation (also known as emotional regulation) is an important concept that helps us cope with everyday life. Self-regulation is the ability to manage your behaviors, emotions, and reactions to your feelings and the world around you.

This includes:

  • Regulating reactions towards strong emotions like excitement, anger, and frustration
  • Calming yourself down after something exciting or upsetting
  • Focusing your attention on a task
  • Controlling impulses

This is important for children as it helps them to

  • Learn and remain focused in school
  • Act in socially acceptable ways by controlling unexpected impulses
  • Build social connections and make friends
  • Become more independent by learning how to behave in new situations with less guidance

What ages does this apply to and when is it appropriate to teach your child this concept?

Self-regulation is a concept that applies to all ages! This skill develops across your lifespan – even as adults we continue to learn how to self-regulate. It can look different at each stage of development.

It is important to note that children aren’t born with the ability to self-regulate. Learning this skill requires support from a parent or caregiver, as it is not something that a child can develop alone.  Each child is an individual with different temperaments and strengths, as such, each child’s need for support in this area may look different.  What dysregulates one child (e.g. loud crowds, strong smells, or losing a game) may not dysregulate another child.

Typically, infants and toddlers under 3 years old cannot regulate their own emotions. For a young child, this is a complicated concept to understand.  Parents play an important role for co-regulation. This is when you help your child identify and process their emotions because they may have difficulty doing it alone. This may also be an area parents need to support over the course of their child’s development and support may look different with a toddler versus an 8 year old or teenager.  Co-regulation is a great tool to help your child learn the skills to self-regulate.

Across the stages of development, these are some ways you may notice your child self-regulating. Every child is unique and different, so it’s ok if these examples don’t apply to your child!

In babies, self-regulation may look like sucking their fingers for comfort or looking away from people and objects as they get overwhelmed.

In toddlers, self-regulation may look like understanding when they are feeling strong emotions and identifying these feelings.

In preschoolers, self-regulation may look like understanding how to play and interact with other children and understand the expectations that come with this kind of social interaction (sharing toys, keeping hands to themselves, using polite words, etc.).

In teenagers, self-regulation may look like good time management, remaining focused on difficult tasks, and considering the effects of their behaviour on others.

The complex idea of self-regulation may be daunting for young children as it may be hard to understand. Trying to explain this concept to a young toddler wouldn’t be very helpful! Despite this, it is never too early to start working with your child to help them manage their emotions and behaviours. This can be as simple as helping your children identify their emotions or offering them comfort and support when they feel dis-regulated. Children learn and absorb the most in their first few years compared to any other time in their lives. Early attention to this skill can help develop this skill to its fullest potential!

It is important to understand that a dysregulated child is not a “bad” child.  A dysregulated child simply means that they need support or lack the tools to cope with the presenting problem.

 How does Occupational Therapy help?

Occupational therapy can offer support and strategies for self-regulating, for both parents and their children. An occupational therapist can evaluate your child’s sensory processing patterns and behavioral response to their unique needs. There are a variety of strategies that can taught to the parent to support their child’s nervous system.  If the child is older,  they  may be ready to learn key concepts for self-regulating, such as learning how to read their own internal systems (heart rate increase, breathing increase, feeling hot) and how to physiologically support these systems on their own.

 How can you support your child’s emotional regulation?

Warm and supportive relationships help children develop self-regulation!

Some strategies parents can implement to help support this area of development include:

  • Be responsive: Be aware of and pay attention to your child’s needs and cues and respond to them as they arise. For example, if a room is too loud, take your child into another room.
  • Be patient: Self-regulation is not an easy skill to develop and will take time to learn. Give your child opportunities to practice their self-regulation and remember that this development will take some time!
  • Talk about emotions with your child: To be able to regulate emotions, first a child needs to understand them. Offering a range of emotional vocabulary and helping your child understand and identify their emotions is a great way to do this.
  • Praise your child when they show self-regulation: Saying things like “You were awesome waiting for your turn!” or “You were amazing at sharing your toys with your friends!” are great ways to show your child what appropriate behaviour and emotional management looks like.
  • Structure their environment: Creating an environment that’s physically and emotionally safe provides a safe space for your child to learn and grow. Removing environmental stressors helps make self-regulation more manageable.
  • Sooth your child and help them self-sooth: By being calm, responsive, and supportive when your child becomes dis-regulated, you will be offering a sense of comfort that can help them to calm down.
  • Maintain a routine: For some children, knowing what to expect makes it easier to manage. By establishing a routine, this allows for your child to practice more easily managing their behaviours.
  • Model self-regulation: Children learn a lot from watching the actions and reactions of those around them. Showing how you self-regulate can help offer a positive model for your child to look up to! Saying things like “Let me write this in the calendar before I forget!” or “I’d really like to keep painting, but if I don’t clean up, we will be late to go to grandma and grandpa’s house!” are great ways to model this behaviour.


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