Self –regulation is a skill that children need to be taught and practice. The trick is not to avoid hard situations. Instead, parents can coach kids through tough situations. Breaking an activity into smaller, more doable parts can help. For instance, if your child has a hard time brushing their teeth, start with just putting toothpaste on the brush. Praise them when they do it and slowly add steps.
Practicing mindfulness can help with self-regulation. Mindfulness teaches kids how to focus on the present instead of the past or the future. For older kids, a kind of therapy called dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) can help with emotion regulation and distress tolerance.
What is Self-Regulation?
Self-regulation is the ability to manage your emotions and behavior in accordance with the demands of the situation. It includes being able to resist highly emotional reactions to upsetting stimuli, to calm yourself down when you get upset, to adjust to a change in expectations, and to handle frustration without an outburst. It is a set of skills that enables children, as they mature, to direct their own behavior towards a goal, despite the unpredictability of the world and our own feelings.
How do we teach Self-Regulation skills?
The parent or teacher needs to help the child slow down and more carefully choose an effective response instead of being impulsive.
We approach self-regulation skills in the same way we approach other skills, academic or social: isolate that skill and provide practice. When you think of it as a skill to be taught –rather than, say, just bad behavior—it changes the tone and content of the feedback you give to the child.
The key to learning self-regulation skills is not to avoid situations that are difficult for kids to handle, but to coach kids through them and provide a supportive framework.
Imagine a situation that can produce strong negative emotions, like a frustrating math homework assignment. If a parent hovers too much, they risk taking over the regulation role. Instead of the child recognizing that the work is frustrating and figuring out how to handle it, what they feel is that the parent is frustrating them by making them do it.
Gradually shedding your assistance in this situation might be helping the child with one problem, and then expecting them to try the rest. If they feel frustrated, they might get up and get a drink. They might use a timer to give themselves periodic breaks. The parent would check in on them at intervals, and offer praise for the efforts.
Help kids become Self-Reflective
When parents or teachers approach impulsive, inappropriate behavior calmly and give them time, kids can learn to choose better ways to respond to that situation. The feedback kids need is non-judgmental and non-emotional: what went wrong, and why, and how they can fix it next time.
When kids are part of an environment that’s reflective and analytic as opposed to emotional and fast-paced, they can learn to make better choices. Slowing down allows children to become more thoughtful, reflective and self-aware. We need to slow down and model self-reflection, self-awareness and self-regulation for our kids.
Mindfulness and meditation are good for everyone, but especially for children with self-regulation challenges. For older kids, dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is also an option, as it focuses on distress tolerance and emotion regulation.
At the end of the day, though, nothing can replace the work of the parent. It seems to me, that the family environment is the most important piece.