How to Support Self-Regulation Difficulties in Children
What is self-regulation and why is it important?
It is tempting to label challenging behaviour as oppositional, defiant, manipulative, and attention seeking. But, challenging behaviour is often not in children’s control. It is more accurate and helpful to understand this behaviour as a sign that children cannot handle their big emotions (e.g., mad, sad, sacred). When they feel overwhelmed, their emotions are getting the best of them. That is, they cannot self-regulate.
Self-regulation is the ability to remain calm, cope with big emotions, adapt, and respond appropriately to our environment. Self-regulation is important because it allows children to do well in school, with friends, and at home. It helps children feel good about what they can handle and it helps children feel good about themselves.
This article is written for parents, teachers, and other adults that provide care to children. It will discuss
- the link between self-regulation and challenging behaviour
- how brain development gives rise to self-regulation
- how you can support the development of self-regulation skills in children.
Self-regulation and brain development
It can be helpful to think of the brain as made up of two different but equally important parts: the downstairs brain and the upstairs brain.
The downstairs brain includes the brainstem and limbic system. It controls our body’s basic functions (e.g., heart rate and breathing) and stress response (e.g., fight, flight, freeze). When our downstairs brain senses danger, it moves us to act before we think. This survival instinct to panic and react with adrenaline pumping through our bodies can be life-saving. The problem arises when our downstairs brain wrongly interprets everyday stress as a danger. When children do not have the skills to meet the demands of their environment, their strong emotions can trigger them to react without thinking. If ongoing, this can lead to a combination of social, emotional, behavioural, and academic challenges.
When children feel safe and relaxed, they can use their upstairs brain that includes the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain gives rise to self-awareness and self-control. It allows us to pause in the moment and think before we act. During this moment, we can reflect, consider other perspectives, empathize with others, plan, reason, make good decisions and problem-solve. The development of our upstairs brain determines how able we are to self-regulate.
The upstairs brain takes time to develop fully, growing all the way into young adulthood. This means that younger children have more difficulty than older children with self-regulation (coping and adapting). Their environment easily triggers very young children. When they feel big emotions (e.g., mad, sad, scared) they throw a tantrum or have a meltdown. They find it difficult to cope with and adapt to change. Frequent or intense challenging behaviour is often a sign that children do not have the skills they need to calm themselves (regulate) when they feel overwhelmed.
As children grow up and their brains develop, they become more able to manage their thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. They become better at:
- staying calm when they feel upset
- stopping to think before they act
- doing what is expected of them, even when they don’t want to
- paying attention and avoiding distraction
- staying focused on their goals
- waiting to get what they want
- adapting to changes in their environment
- cooperating with others
Research shows that when children learn and practice self-regulation skills, they are forming pathways in their brains that increase their ability to manage stress in the future.
Self-regulation and neurodevelopmental disorders
Difficulties with self-regulation are more common among children with neurodevelopmental disorders. Conditions like Learning Disabilities and Attention-Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) impact brain development. For example, development of the prefrontal cortex part of the brain in children with ADHD develops more slowly - as much as 30% or more - than in children without ADHD. This means that a 10-year-old child with ADHD may have the self-regulation skills like a typically developing (neurotypical) 7 year old.
Children with LD and/ or ADHD need more patience and support as they struggle with self-regulation, sensory, language, processing, executive functioning, and/ or other challenges. While medication may help decrease impulsive, hyperactive, and/ or inattentive behaviour for children with ADHD, keep in mind that ‘pills’ will not teach children the skills they need to regulate. All children can benefit from instruction, guidance, practice, and loving support to learn how to cope and adapt to their environment successfully.
Self-regulation as a resource pool
Think about the gas tank in your car. You need to monitor and refuel the tank before it empties for your car to run smoothly. Much like a gas tank, self-regulation draws from a limited resource pool. Children need to feel good and energized to cope when feeling overwhelmed. It is important to increase enjoyable activities for children where they can experience joy, success, and pride. These positive experiences will refuel their regulation tank, so they have the energy they need to manage throughout the day. Children’s energy reserves will change throughout the day depending on the enjoyable activities (that refuel their tank) and stressors (that drain their tank) they experience. We want to ensure that the demands we place on children (e.g., academics, chores, activities) are never greater than their internal resources to cope.
Responding to self-regulation difficulties in children
Children cannot always handle their big emotions (e.g., mad, sad, scared) and may appear anxious, irritable, impulsive, destructive, or aggressive. When frustrated, they may show this in behaviour you can see or turn it in toward themselves in ways you cannot see. If lack of regulation skills is the cause of children’s meltdowns, punishment will not teach them the skills they need to stay calm, cope, and adapt. Instead, punishment will likely frustrate children more, lead to feelings of shame and failure, and increase challenging behaviour. The increased challenging behaviour can also cause distance in your parent/ teacher relationship and quickly feed into a cycle of stress for everyone involved - but you can intervene.
In the midst of children’s tantrums or meltdowns, challenge yourself to regulate. Children will tend to mirror the stress and emotions of the adults around them. When we are calm, we can better respond with new insight, compassion, and patience towards them. Remember that children’s upstairs brains are still in development. When dysregulated, their downstairs brains have temporarily taken over their ability to control themselves and they are feeling overwhelmed. Recognize that children need time and support to learn and practice regulation skills. It is important that you model self-regulation by remaining calm. Offer a gentle touch, empathy, and validate their feelings. From here, you can begin to guide children with authority to use calming strategies to remain in control and adapt to their environment. As noted above, with age and practice, self-regulation becomes easier for children.
How to support the development of self-regulation in children
Self-regulation involves a set of skills that allow us to manage our big emotions and think before we act. Here are some pointers for how you can support the development of regulation skills in children.
- Manage your own stress. Get your own needs met so that you can support children and be a positive role model.
- Keep the end goal in mind. The end goal is not to simply decrease children’s challenging behaviour. We want to teach skills. When children learn how to cope with stress, their behaviour will improve. You will notice that they can handle changes in their environment better and respond to stress more calmly.
- Develop realistic expectations. Assess children’s skills to determine where they need support (e.g., instruction, self-awareness, practice, feedback). Remember that younger children have less developed brains and are less able to regulate themselves. Demand from children as much as they are able to handle, keeping in mind that success leads to more success. Expect setbacks to learning and growth.
- Stay calm and model self-regulation. Remember that when children are reacting in the moment, they are in survival mode. Their downstairs brains are in full swing. Do not try to talk to them because they cannot respond to logic or reason. Instead, stay calm, show empathy, help them become self-aware, and guide them through sensory experiences and calming strategies.
- Be supportive and encouraging. Help children feel cared about, valued, and understood as they learn to regulate. Show genuine interest and engage with them as a coach and mentor.
- Ensure that children’s resource pool for regulation is regularly replenished. Sleep, a balanced diet, and regular exercise are essential. Help children plan for activities they enjoy and in which they do well.
- Reduce unnecessary demands. Review children’s routines to make sure they are not overloaded. Too many responsibilities will increase stress and decrease children’s energy levels to regulate.
- Provide structure and consistency. Let children know what to expect and what is expected of them (e.g., routines, clear rules, proactive planning). Predictability helps to decrease stress.
- Collaborate and make learning about regulation fun. Be creative when helping children develop, practice, and adapt coping strategies toward regulation. Listen to their ideas. Talk about ‘learning to regulate’ in ways they can understand. For example, if children like science, present this task to them as an experiment. If they like spy games, present it as a mission.
- Teach children about their brains. Help them understand the role of the downstairs brain in their stress response, as well as the upstairs brain in their regulation. You can read ‘The Whole-Brain Child’ listed in the resource section of this article for more information.
- Expand their vocabulary. Talk to children about their feelings. Teach them about their resource pool.
- Enhance their self-awareness to help them self-monitor. Help children rate their emotions and energy reserve on a scale from 1 (low) to 5 (high). Help them identify strategies to calm and ways to refill their resource pool.
- Help them develop a toolbox of coping strategies to use when dysregulated. The idea is to help children stop in the moment - stay calm and think - and not act on their big emotions.
- Mental break (e.g., book, music, coloring, creativity, hobbies, games, movies)
- Physical break (e.g., dance, sports, walk, stretch)
- Spiritual break (e.g., yoga, meditation, mantra)
- Sensory experience (e.g., sound, taste, touch, movement)
- Grounding activity (e.g., deep breathing, slow counting, visual imagery)
- Positive self-talk (e.g., affirmations)
- Social support (e.g., ask for help, connect with a friend/ parent)
- Help children identify opportunities to practice their skills. Start by practicing in moments of calm. Once mastered, they will be more able to apply these skills during increasingly challenging situations.
- Give immediate and specific feedback. Focus on effort over result. Reframe failures as opportunities for learning and growth. Make a plan for how to handle the next challenge.
- Use rewards, positive reinforcement, and praise. Rewards can include common everyday privileges (screen time, internet, video games, going to a friend’s house, anything your child enjoys) or special privileges (movies, activities, buying an item). Help motivate children to learn and practice regulation. Celebrate small successes.
- Hold back from punishing dysregulated behaviour. Instead, use it as a starting point to understand where children need support. Remember that punishment will not teach children the skills they need to regulate.
Self-regulation is a skill that needs to be supported in children because it is key to their overall success and happiness. Children who can cope with stress, anger, disappointment, and frustration are more able to do well in school, with friends, and at home. Remember that the more children practice regulating themselves, the easier it will become for them to cope with and adapt to change. You can help children by removing unnecessary demands and guiding them with loving support.
Key takeaway points
- Self-regulation is the ability to manage our thoughts, emotions, and behaviours when we are feeling overwhelmed (e.g., mad, sad, scared).
- Learning how to cope and adapt is a brain-based skill that develops in children over time and with practice.
- Due to brain development, self-regulation difficulties are more common among younger children and children with LD, ADHD, etc.
- Children’s lack of self-regulation skills result in social, emotional, behavioural, and/ or academic challenges.
- Medication and/or punishment may decrease challenging behaviour, but will not teach children the skills they need to manage stress.
- You can choose to be a positive role model (e.g., remain calm when children are upset) and support children toward developing self-regulation skills through guidance, feedback, and loving support.
- Children who can self-regulate are more likely to experience success.
- Childmind.org - resource for mental health and learning disorders
- Understood.org - resource for learning and attention issues
- The Whole-Brain Child - by Dan Siegel & Tina Bryson
- Self-Reg: How to Help Your Child (and You) Break the Stress Cycle and Successfully Engage with Life - by Stuart Shanker
- Smart but Stuck: Emotions in Teens and Adults with ADHD - by Thomas Brown
- Smart but Scattered: The Revolutionary “Executive Skills” Approach to Helping Kids Reach Their Potential - by Peg Dawson & Richard Guare
- Taking Charge of ADHD: The Complete Authoritative Guide for Parents - by Russell A. Barkley