Self-regulation is the ability to understand and manage your behaviour and your reactions to feelings and the things happening around you. Children start developing this ability from around 12 months. With your help, they get better at it as they grow and learn.
What is self-regulation?
Self-regulation is the ability to understand and manage your behaviour and your reactions to feelings and the things happening around you.
It includes being able to:
Why self-regulation is important
As your child grows, self-regulation will help her:
How self-regulation develops
Babies aren’t born with the ability to control their own reactions and behaviour. Self-regulation develops most in the toddler and preschool years, but it also keeps developing right into adulthood.
Your baby is too young to learn self-regulation, but with your help she’ll start developing ways of handling her emotions.
When you respond quickly to your baby when she’s upset, and cuddle and comfort her, she calms down. This experience helps your baby learn about how to soothe herself – for example, she might suck her thumb to comfort herself. Being able to self-soothe is the first step towards learning self-regulation.
As your baby becomes a toddler, she’ll start to develop some basic self-regulation skills. For example, she’ll learn how long she usually needs to wait for things like food or her turn to play.
From around 2 years, your child will probably be able to follow simple instructions or rules like ‘Please put your hat on’ and ‘Don’t hit’.
As she develops, your child will start to follow simple rules even when you aren’t there. However, at this age you can still expect that she might break rules in tricky situations. For example, if another child has a toy your child really wants, she might snatch it rather than wait for her turn.
From around 3-4 years, your child will start to know what you expect of her behaviour. She’ll probably be able to control her behaviour with some supervision and help from you. For example, she might try to speak in a soft voice if you’re at the movies.
By school age, your child is likely to be better at planning – that is, imagining the consequences of her behaviour and deciding how to respond. For example, your child might start being able to disagree with other people without having an argument.
At this age, your child is learning to see ‘both sides’ of a situation. When she can imagine how somebody else sees and feels about a situation, she’s more likely to control how she expresses her own wants and needs.
Every child is different and some children find self-regulation easier than others. Even older children and teenagers sometimes struggle with self-regulation. Your child’s ability to self-regulate will depend on the strength and intensity of her emotions. Children who typically feel things strongly and intensely find it harder to self-regulate. It isn’t as hard for children who are more easy-going. However, if you feel that something isn’t quite right, do visit your General Practitioner (GP) or paediatrician
Helping your child learn self-regulation
Here are some tips for helping your child learn self-regulation:
Be patient with your child – it can be very hard for young children to follow rules when they have strong feelings. Matching your expectations to your child’s age and stage of development can also help.
Problems with self-regulation
From time to time, different things can affect your child’s ability to self-regulate. For example – tiredness, illness and changes to your child’s routine can all affect her ability to regulate her reactions and behaviour. Also, some children have great self-regulation at child care or school but find it hard at home. Other children struggle in busy, noisy places like shopping centres.
Although these problems with self-regulation are pretty normal, it’s a good idea to speak with a professional if you’re worried about your child’s behaviour or you’re having trouble managing her behaviour as she gets older. For example, you could talk to your GP, paediatrician or your child’s child care educator or teacher.
Consider seeking professional help if:
If your child has challenging behaviour and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or a disability, talk with the professionals who work with her. They’ll be able to suggest ways to manage her behaviour and to help her learn self-regulation skills.