Updated: May 3, 2020
In my opinion, one of the most powerful life skills you can teach your child is that of emotional self-regulation.
What Is Emotional Self-regulation?
Emotional self-regulation is the ability to recognise and manage your own thoughts, feelings and behaviour.
For children this means being able to:
● Handle disappointment when plans change.
● Recognise feelings of anger and manage them before they become a tantrum or meltdown.
● Manage a feeling of sadness before it becomes overwhelming and debilitating.
● Recognise the feeling of being over excited and being able to do something about it before taking and impulsive action resulting in negative outcomes.
Below are two definitions of emotional self-regulation that I use to support my coaching of children in this area.
The first of these is by Andrea Bell from GoodTherapy.org, who states very simply that self-regulation is:
“Control (of oneself) by oneself” (2016).
This definition is expanded further when she describes someone with good emotional self-regulation as:
“Someone who has the ability to keep their emotions in check. They can resist impulsive behaviours that might worsen their situation, and they can cheer themselves up when they are feeling down. They have a flexible range of emotional and behavioural responses that are well matched to the demands of their environment” (2016).
The second definition that works for me in my practice comes from psychologist, Stuart Shanker, who describes self-regulation as:
“The ability to manage your own energy states, emotions, behaviours and attention in ways that are socially acceptable and help achieve positive goals, such as maintaining good relationships, learning and maintaining wellbeing.” (Shanker, 2010).
Such definitions support my belief that the earlier we can teach these skills to our children, the more empowered they will be to manage many of the challenges they will face in their own lives.
If your child demonstrates any of the following, then chances are they are struggling with an inability to self-regulate:
● Has difficulty coping when plans change.
● Easily becomes angry or aggressive.
● Gives up on a task quickly or refuses to even try new things.
● Easily becomes frustrated, resulting in frequent tantrums and meltdowns.
Helping our children to understand their emotions and the emotions of others and how to respond appropriately, helps them to make sense of their environment and adjust to it accordingly. It empowers them to take some measure of control over their own life and helps them toward a greater level of independence and self-efficacy.
Why is Emotional Self-regulation important?
Studies indicate that when children are able to self-regulate, their ability to learn at school and interact socially is enhanced considerably.
● Allows a child to listen and focus in the classroom, enabling them to follow instructions and focus on a task.
● Enables a child to complete tasks before shifting their focus to the next one.
● Helps children to manage strong emotions by knowing how to calm themselves down.
● Helps children to behave in a socially acceptable way in order to develop friendships and become part of a community.
● Leads to greater self-efficacy.
● Leads to a general improvement in wellbeing.
A study conducted in 2016 concluded that young people who were able to self-regulate, reported greater wellbeing than their peers, including enhanced life satisfaction, perceived social support and positive affect (ie. good feelings). (Verzeletti, Zammuner, Galli, Agnoli, & Duregger.)
What is the difference between self-regulation and self-control?
Psychologist, Stuart Shanker, describes this difference as follows:
“Self-control is about inhibiting strong impulses; self-regulation [is about] reducing the frequency and intensity of strong impulses by managing stress-load and recovery. In fact, self-regulation is what makes self-control possible, or, in many cases, unnecessary.”
If for instance, you have a strong desire to buy a cheeseburger on the way home from your gym workout but make the decision not to because you realise it will sabotage your efforts to be healthy and fit, you are demonstrating self-control. Getting up to exercise when you would prefer to stay in bed is another example of demonstrating self-control.
Self-regulation is recognising a strong emotion and dealing with it before it gets out of control. For a child, this could be demonstrated when they are becoming very angry about not getting their way but are able to take themselves to their room to listen to music before they explode. Or it might be recognising a feeling of sadness that is lasting a bit too long, so they get out their paints because they know that always makes them feel better.
In a way, self-regulation is essential for self-control.
How do children learn to self-regulate?
Learning to self-regulate begins at an early age and continues into adulthood. It is a life-long process and takes time and practice.
Parents, as their child’s first teachers, are in the perfect position to teach their child to self-regulate. This is done with a combination of mentoring, coaching, modelling, explicit teaching and an incredible amount of patience.
When children are young:
● Teach them about feelings and behaviour, read books and discuss them in terms of how the characters were feeling and how they behaved and what could have been a better choice.
● Create a calm space somewhere in your home and teach your child how to use it if they feel upset.
● Role-play and practice appropriate social behaviour for certain situations.
● Model calm behaviour both in voice and body language when your child is out of control (not easy I know!!!).
● Play games like Musical Chairs, Hide and Seek and Simon Says (but don’t always let them win).
As children get older:
● Continue to have discussions about feelings and behaviour and keep asking questions such as ‘What could you have done differently? What action might have created a better outcome? What might you do next time you are in that situation?’
● Play board games where you stick to the rules and don’t always let them win. Have rules around staying until the game is finished and not walking away when things are not going their way.
● Create lists of actions that your child can turn to for help in dealing with strong emotions. These could include:
● going for a walk
● kicking a ball around the yard
● jumping on a trampoline
● talking to a trusted friend
● listening to an audiobook/music/mindfulness app
● playing music
You get the idea! Practice these things when your child is not experiencing strong emotions.
When you are dealing with an adolescent, you can help by:
● Teaching self-regulation skills through modelling them yourself, providing opportunities to practice these skills, monitoring and reinforcing their progress, and coaching them on how, why and when to use their skills.
● Providing a warm, safe and responsive relationship in which adolescents are comfortable with making mistakes.
● Structuring the environment to make self-regulation easier and more manageable. Limit opportunities for risk-taking behaviour, provide positive discipline, highlight natural consequences of poor decision-making and reduce the emotional intensity of conflict situations (Murray & Rosenbalm, 2017).
By teaching children to be self-aware, to make connections between their feelings and their actions and by helping them to identify positive responses to stressful or challenging situations, you are establishing solid self-regulation patterns of behaviour that will stand them in good stead when they face the inevitable challenges of life.
My plea is - Start Early!
This was a very brief reflection on self-regulation. If you are interested in more detail, refer to the sites below. Hey Sigmund is excellent, with detailed explanations and plenty of useful tools.