Understanding Self Regulation in Kids
Self-regulation refers to the ability to manage thoughts, emotions, and behaviors to achieve goals or maintain positive relationships. Children are not born with these self-regulation skills, but instead, they develop them over time through social interactions, experiences, and practice. While self-regulation is an essential part of child development, it's also normal for children to struggle with it at times.
The process of developing self-regulation skills begins in early childhood and continues into adolescence. This evolution is crucial as children learn to navigate the world around them, and as they encounter new and sometimes challenging situations in their everyday life.
However, there are interfering factors that can get in the way. Like so many of the children I work with, they have neurodevelopmental disorders such as Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, dyslexia, or autism or struggle with mental issues such as anxiety, depression, or OCD. Often these children and teens have layered issues too.
Taylor was one of those kids that seemed to have every clinical diagnosis under the sun, including ADHD, ODD, dyslexia, anxiety, and disruptive mood disorder. Taylor wasn’t always like this but in elementary school, his behavior changed.
By the time Taylor and his parents were part of our BrainBehaviorReset™ Program, things were at a crisis level because he was just a dysregulated kid all the time. Now in high school, his parents were sick of the band-aid approach of psychiatric medications and talk therapy and that is what led them to do a QEEG brain map to get to the bottom of what was going on.
The Importance of Developing Self-Regulation Skills
Self-regulation skills are fundamental for success in all areas of life. When children learn to self-regulate, they develop a sense of self-control and self-efficacy, which can boost their confidence, promote emotional well-being, and improve their overall quality of life.
Research shows that children who demonstrate strong self-regulation skills are more likely to do well in school, have better social skills, and experience less stress and anxiety (McClelland et al., 2007). These skills can also help children cope with negative emotions and control impulses, which are essential for their overall emotional and behavioral health. Developing these skills can be key in ensuring your child's success and well-being, both academically and socially.
Signs of Emotional Dysregulation in Children
Emotional dysregulation is a term used to describe difficulties in managing emotional responses. It's a common issue in childhood, particularly in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or those who have experienced trauma.
In the case of Taylor, it was crystal clear from his QEEG Brain Map that brain dysregulation was a driver of his behavioral dysregulation. It was also clear that the root cause of his issues was PANS/PANDAS and that needed to be treated medically, behaviorally, and that we needed to calm his brain with neurofeedback and CALM PEMF™.
Dysregulated kids can display a range of symptoms from internalizing behaviors to externalizing behaviors, with the latter more likely to be identified and receive help.
Signs of emotional dysregulation in children can include:
- Experiencing intense emotional reactions
- Having frequent tantrums
- Facing trouble in calming down after getting upset
- Struggling with managing negative feelings
- Demonstrating trouble in maintaining focus
- Exhibiting impulsive behavior
- Finding difficulty in dealing with transitions or changes in routine
- Overreacting to minor problems or challenges
- Experiencing mood swings or rapid shifts in emotion
- Difficulty following rules or resisting temptation
- Displaying aggressive or disruptive behavior
- Having trouble understanding or identifying emotions
- Difficulty in initiating, maintaining, or changing activities
- Tendency to become easily overwhelmed or frustrated
- Struggling with social interactions, such as sharing or waiting for their turn
- Difficulty in adapting to new situations or changes in plans
- Demonstrating a high level of worry, anxiety, or fear about everyday situations
- Showing signs of depression, such as persistent sadness, loss of interest, or frequent crying
- Self-harm or talking about hurting themselves
- Exhibiting obsessive or compulsive behaviors, such as repeatedly checking things or excessive cleaning.
How to Teach Your Child Self Regulation Skills
Teaching your child self-regulation skills is an essential part of their emotional and behavioral development and most definitely an evolving process. It involves guiding them to manage their own emotions and control their own behavior and as we like to call it, “Sharing your calm.” This can be achieved through various emotional regulation strategies, including mindfulness exercises, deep breathing techniques, and positive self-talk.
Start by helping your child recognize their emotions. That means using emotional words besides, “I am angry” or “I am frustrated.” When I do a family intake, like the one I did with Taylor, I assess every family’s emotional EQ because in order to help kids regulate, parents need to be able to role model a range of emotions.
It is a matter of shifting how you communicate with your child, so they (and you) aren’t so stuck. Use everyday situations to talk about feelings and how they affect behavior. Encourage your child to express their feelings verbally or through other means such as drawing or writing.
Remember, teaching self-regulation is a gradual process. Be patient and consistent, and celebrate small victories along the way.
Understanding Intense Emotions in Children
Children can experience intense emotions, including anger, sadness, and fear. These strong emotions can be challenging for children to manage, and they and you may need guidance to understand and regulate these feelings.
Help your child understand that it's okay to feel intense emotions. Validate their feelings and reassure them that everyone experiences strong emotions at times. Teach them that emotions are temporary and will pass, and guide them in finding appropriate ways to express their feelings.
It is also important for parents to explicitly teach coping skills to easily upset and frustrated children. Dysregulated kids like Taylor have such low frustration tolerance levels that need to be directly taught and reinforced how to manage uncomfortable emotions, thoughts and sensations.
The Role of Parents and Caregivers in Teaching and Modeling Self-Regulation
As a parent or caregiver, you play a crucial role in teaching and modeling self-regulation. Your actions, reactions, and behaviors provide a template for your child. When you demonstrate effective self-regulation strategies, you show your child how to manage their own emotions and behavior.
I know, I know, this is easier said than done… but you can do it. You just need the right science-backed methods. That is a lot of what we talk about on my It’s Gonna Be OK! Podcast and in our Natural Solutions Parent Community.
Model calm behavior during stressful situations, use deep breathing to manage your own emotions, and employ positive self-talk. Encourage your child to mimic these behaviors, and provide praise when they demonstrate effective self-regulation or when they try to self-regulate.
Ask for help from school when you need it. Kids who struggle with clinical issues such as ADHD, mood disorders, autism, anxiety, etc. may need an IEP in school.
With Taylor, we had to reinforce the heck out of his attempts to self-regulate because he was so dysregulated and ashamed, that he was afraid to try. With consistent strategy usage and brain training, Taylor was able to have a calm brain.
10 Self Regulation Strategies for Helping Your Child Calm Their Brain and Body
Practicing self-regulation is the cornerstone of mastering these essential life skills. Regular practice can involve a variety of activities that promote self-awareness and management of emotions.
Here are some effective self regulation strategies that you can introduce to your child:
- Listening: This skill forms the basis of self-regulation as it helps children understand instructions, grasp social cues, and respond appropriately. Encourage active listening in your child by creating opportunities for them to practice—be it during a conversation, a storytelling session, or while giving them instructions for a task.
- Goal-setting: By setting attainable goals, children learn to focus their efforts, which contributes to better self-regulation. This practice can start small, like completing homework within a set time or achieving a personal best in a game or activity. Over time, the habit of setting and achieving goals can translate into improved self-regulation.
- Self-monitoring: This strategy involves children keeping track of their own behavior and progress. For instance, children could keep a journal of their emotions or use a chart to track their ability to complete tasks without getting distracted. This awareness of their own behavior is a critical step in self-regulation.
- Effective use of self-instructions or self-talk: Self-talk is a potent tool in regulating behavior. Teach your child to use positive and motivating language with themselves. Phrases like “I can do this,” or “I need to calm down before I respond,” can help guide their actions and responses.
- Self-reinforcement: This strategy entails rewarding oneself for achieving a desired behavior or reaching a goal. This could be as simple as allowing extra playtime, a special treat or verbal praise when your child successfully manages their emotions in a difficult situation.
- Mindfulness and meditation: These mindfulness practices help children become aware of their thoughts and feelings without judgment. Start with simple mindfulness exercises like focusing on the breath, and gradually move to guided meditations.
- Deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation: These techniques help manage immediate stress reactions and bring a sense of calm. Deep breathing engages the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting relaxation, while progressive muscle relaxation helps release physical tension.
- The “Stop, Think, Do” strategy: This strategy encourages children to pause and consider their response before acting impulsively. It fosters problem-solving skills, increases distress tolerance, and promotes better decision making (Peterson, 1995).
- Regular physical activity: Engaging in regular physical activity can help children manage stress and anxiety, as well as improve executive functioning. Structured activities like yoga or martial arts can instill discipline and self-control while providing a healthy outlet for releasing energy and expressing emotions.
- Play Self-Regulation Games: Games that make children and teens put the brakes on, can be fun as well as an opportunity to learn. There are many activities that can be incorporated into daily life to foster healthy coping skills.
I have created an essential and easy to use resource for parents and teachers, “147 Therapist-Endorsed Self-Regulation Strategies for Children: A Practical Guide for Parents.” This free resource has the same strategies that we use on our one-to-one BrainBehaviorReset™ Program because I know that when you have a dysregulated kid, you need actionable strategies, and that is what this amazing tool is.
Remember, the key to developing these skills lies in consistent practice and patience. It's also crucial to celebrate small victories along the way to keep your child motivated and confident in their ability to self-regulate.
The Role of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in Self-Regulation
Children with ADHD often struggle with self-regulation. Their difficulties with attention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity can make it challenging to manage their emotions and behavior. However, ADHD should not be seen as a barrier to developing self-regulation skills.
With structured routines, clear expectations, and frequent breaks, children with ADHD can learn and practice self-regulation. Positive reinforcement, such as rewards for good behavior, can also be beneficial. It's also helpful to adapt self-regulation strategies to suit your child's unique needs and abilities.
Behavioral Self-Regulation Techniques for Children
Behavioral self-regulation techniques involve teaching children to control their behavior in response to external stimuli. This includes self-monitoring, goal-setting, self-reinforcement, and executive functioning strategies.
Self-monitoring involves teaching your child to pay attention to their own behavior, while goal-setting encourages them to work towards achievable targets. Self-reinforcement rewards children for demonstrating desired behaviors, while executive functioning strategies teach them to plan, organize, and execute tasks efficiently.
5 Emotional Self-Regulation Techniques for Children
Emotional self-regulation is a crucial skill that helps children identify and manage their emotions effectively. Here are some techniques to help children develop this critical ability:
- Self-Awareness Practices: These activities promote the child's ability to recognize and understand their own emotions. For example, you can encourage your child to notice how their body feels when they experience different emotions or use tools like emotion charts or mood meters to help them identify their feelings. This awareness is the first step towards emotional regulation.
- Self-Talk: Self-talk involves using words and phrases to control emotions and guide behavior. Teaching children to use positive self-talk can help them manage difficult emotions. For instance, if a child is feeling anxious about a test, they could tell themselves, “I am prepared, and I will do my best,” to help calm their nerves.
- Visualization Techniques: Visualization involves creating mental images to help manage emotions. This technique can be particularly useful when children face challenging situations. For example, if a child is feeling upset, they could visualize a calming place, like a beach or a favorite spot in their home, to help soothe their emotions.
- Expressing Emotions: Teaching children how to express their feelings in a healthy way is an essential aspect of emotional self-regulation. This might involve using “I” statements to communicate their feelings, such as “I feel upset when…” or encouraging them to write in a journal to process their emotions.
- Emotion Regulation Skills: These are specific strategies children can use to manage their emotional responses. They may include techniques like deep breathing to calm down when upset or using distraction techniques when faced with negative feelings.
By incorporating these emotional self-regulation techniques into their routine, children can better understand and manage their emotions, leading to increased emotional well-being and a more positive outlook on life.
Encouraging Positive Emotional Responses in Children
Encouraging positive emotional responses involves teaching children to replace negative feelings with positive ones. Helping kids like Taylor overcome the emotional pain they experience helps to get them unstuck from the fear, shame, and blame cycle. This can be achieved through positive self-talk, gratitude exercises, and by fostering a positive home environment where children feel safe and loved.
Promote positive discipline strategies that involve praise and rewards for good behavior, rather than punishment for misbehavior. Encourage your child to express their feelings and provide them with a supportive and understanding response.
The Benefits of Learning Regulation Skills for Child Development
Learning regulation skills has numerous benefits for child development. These skills can enhance a child's ability to self-regulate, manage their emotions, and interact positively with others. They can improve academic performance, promote emotional well-being, and enhance social skills.
Moreover, learning self-regulation skills can foster a sense of self-control, self-efficacy, and self-esteem in children. These skills can empower children to manage their own emotions and behavior, boosting their confidence and autonomy, as well as help them to love themselves and their neurodivergent brain.
Seeking Professional Help for Emotional Dysregulation in Children
If your child constantly struggles with emotional dysregulation, it may be beneficial to seek professional help just like Taylor and his family did in our BrainBehaviorReset™ Program.
We first calmed his brain with CALM PEMF™, neurofeedback, supplements, as well as supported his parents in shaping behaviors. Once Taylor's brain was calm, we added therapy to help him learn to identify, understand, and manage his emotions in healthy ways. It didn't happen overnight, but Taylor was able to be attentive and calm for the first time in almost a decade and without any harmful side effects of medications.
Diet was also a huge shift point too. Since he had a diagnosis of PANS, we needed to get his inflammation down and adding nutrition to calm his brain was something we did slowly as he became more and more regulated and thus willing to try new foods.
Developing self-regulation skills is a journey, not a destination. Remember that every child is unique, and what works for one child may not work for another. So, it's crucial to be patient and persistent, and to celebrate your child's progress, no matter how small.
However, if your child continues to struggle with self-regulation despite your best efforts, it may be time to seek professional help. Emotional dysregulation can sometimes indicate an underlying issue, such as ADHD or a mental health issue, which requires specialized care.
Working one-to-one with us to help your child and family have a calm brain is your next step. You can apply to our BrainBehaviorReset™ Program at www.drroseann.com/help. Together, we can help your child learn to manage their intense emotions, control their impulses, and build a foundation of emotional and behavioral self-regulation that will serve them well throughout their life.
Self-regulation is often regarded as the cornerstone of mental health. It's a skill that takes time and practice to master, but the effort is worth it. By teaching our children how to self-regulate, we're giving them the tools to succeed in life, to handle difficult emotions, and to maintain well-being. This is an investment in their future, an investment in their happiness that is worth it.
Parent Action Steps
☐ Recognize and validate your child's emotions.
☐ Teach emotional awareness and labeling.
☐ Practice mindfulness and deep breathing exercises together.
☐ Be a positive role model for self-regulation.
☐ Encourage positive self-talk and provide supportive statements.
☐ Establish routines and a structured environment.
☐ Use visual supports, such as charts or schedules.
☐ Teach problem-solving skills to navigate challenges.
☐ Foster emotional regulation through play and storytelling.
☐ Take our Solution Matcher to get science-backed solutions to help your child today.
Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. (2011). Building the Brain’s “Air Traffic Control” System: How Early Experiences Shape the Development of Executive Function: Working Paper No. 11. Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.edu.
Eisenberg, N., Spinrad, T. L., & Eggum, N. D. (2010). Emotion-related self-regulation and its relation to children's maladjustment. Annual review of clinical psychology, 6, 495-525.
McClelland, M. M., Cameron, C. E., Connor, C. M., Farris, C. L., Jewkes, A. M., & Morrison, F. J. (2007). Links between behavioral regulation and preschoolers' literacy, vocabulary, and math skills. Developmental Psychology, 43(4), 947-959. doi:10.1037/0012-16126.96.36.1997
Petersen, L. (1995). Stop Think Do. In H.P.J.G. van Bilsen, P.C. Kendall, & J.H. Slavenburg (Eds.), Behavioral Approaches for Children and Adolescents. Springer, Boston, MA. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4757-9406-9_9
Always remember… “Calm Brain, Happy Family™”
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