How to Nurture Self-Regulation in Children and Teenagers

What is self-regulation?

Self refers to you or me. Regulation is the act of having power or management. So, when you combine these two concepts, you get “self-regulation.”( ZONES OF REGULATION). Self-regulation is the ability to manage oneself and to be in charge of oneself. 

The pre-frontal cortex, a region of the brain, is involved in helping us regulate our emotions. We can problem-solve, plan, think through consequences, make (good) deliberate decisions, and control strong emotions with its assistance. It takes time and a lot of experience to develop. Full development of the pre-frontal cortex occurs in girls in their early to mid-twenties, and in boys closer to 30. Meanwhile, we must maintain developmentally appropriate expectations. Children do not learn from harsh words or harsh responses. Nobody does. They learn by repeatedly watching and doing with us.

We wouldn’t expect young children to cross a busy street by themselves, so we must accept that the ability to self-regulate big feelings will take time to develop. The same part of the brain that is required for regulation is also required for children to cross a busy street safely. Our children will be able to self-regulate more as the prefrontal cortex develops, but the capacity will wear thin at times, as it does for all of us. Even as adults with a fully developed pre-frontal cortex, our strong emotions will get the best of us and we will say or do things we shouldn’t.

Self-regulation is the process by which your child’s brain develops the ability to control their behaviours and emotions in response to a specific situation. It is the ability to calm yourself down when you become upset, to adjust to a change in environment or expectations, and to deal with frustration without exploding. Children practice self-control when they share, listen to others, or wait their turn. 

Self-regulation is an important childhood skill. We are teaching these skills at school during our SEL sessions. It is the seed we plant in children that allows them to grow into adults capable of managing their emotions, thoughts, and behaviours. When we teach children how to stay calm in stressful situations, they form strong habits that they can use in the future. Keep in mind that there is no single event that will magically start a child’s perfect self-regulation. Children’s self-control develops at different rates, just as their physical development does. Building your child’s self-regulation toolkit necessitates careful planning and comprehension.

Simple Techniques for Teaching Self-Regulation

Meltdowns and acting out are natural but ineffective ways of dealing with high-stimulation situations. We can assist our children by teaching them how to effectively calm down or avoid impulsive reactions. Consider how we teach children to ride a bike: It takes time, patience, and even more practice!

Similarly, we can coach our children as they develop their self-control muscles! Playdates with peers, for example, maybe a time when your child experiences negative emotions or struggles with social skills. Use these playdates to coach positive social behaviour by providing breaks and lavishing descriptive praise on small accomplishments. If you don’t see results, don’t give up.

Here are some easy ways to help your child with self-regulation on a daily basis:

  • Remain calm, demonstrate empathy, assist them in becoming self-aware, and lead them through sensory experiences and calming strategies. Be encouraging and supportive. As children learn to regulate, make them feel loved, valued, and understood. Demonstrate a genuine interest in them and interact with them as a coach and mentor.
  • Teach them how to ‘Name it, Tame it, and Reframe it’. We must recognize our emotions as they occur. Emotions are bursts of energy within us that gain power when we ignore them. “Naming” that emotion causes our brain to pause. Your mind and body will begin to sync as you name the emotions you notice. Then you can break free from a downward spiral of overwhelming emotions. Instead, you’ll regain your equilibrium. To tame it, give it a name. You’ll probably feel better, calm down, and gain clarity.
  • Like crossing the street, the ability to self-regulate will emerge over time if they have the necessary experience. The experience they require is our calm, strong, and loving presence in the face of their intense emotions. Consider it like being an anchor in their emotional storm. Breathe, feel what they’re feeling, and be with them. Wait, till the storm has passed. Nothing needs to be fixed. They’re not broken. This is a necessary part of their development, not a distraction from it. Allow any agenda to ‘get them to behave’ or ‘control themselves’ to go. The more we adhere to a plan, the more impatient we will become, and the more disappointed or angry we will become when things do not go as planned.
  • Maintain your connection as much as you can during intense emotions. When things start to calm down again, doing this will increase your influence. This is the time to discuss what happened, what can be done differently the next time, and any necessary corrections. They will be in a brain state that is more conducive to learning when they are calm. There is no rush with this.

Helping children and teenagers in learning and practising self-regulation

Here are some concrete ways you can assist your child in learning and practising self-regulation:

  1. Work on helping your child understand and control their emotions. For toddlers, preschoolers, and school-age children, use calming down strategies; a hug, playing with them, reading with them and so on. For pre-teens and teenagers, use calming down techniques; deep breathing, counting from 1-10 and so on.
  2. Prepare for difficult circumstances where it might be difficult for younger kids to behave well. For instance, “The store we’re going to has lots of breakable items.” Please don’t touch it, but feel free to look. As you walk into the store, gently remind your child. Say, “Remember, just look, OK?” for instance.
  3. Involve pre-teens and teenagers in problem-solving and conflict resolution. ‘I’m working all weekend, so I know we cannot go for an outing, lunch, dinner,’ for example. Let’s figure out how to make the most of your time.
  4. When your child demonstrates self-control and manages a difficult situation, praise them. ‘You were great at waiting your turn, for instance, and I appreciated how you supported your brother/sister when he/she asked’.
  5. Try to be a role model of self-regulation for your child. ‘I’d really like to keep gardening, but if I don’t clean up now, I won’t be able to get you to swimming class on time,’ for example. Alternatively, ‘Let me put that on the calendar so I don’t forget’.

In the same way that we must maintain developmentally appropriate expectations for our children, we must maintain humane expectations for ourselves. When confronted with strong emotions, we sometimes lose our minds (literally, our thinking minds) and revert to instinct and impulse. We’re human, and that’s what humans do occasionally.

A child experiencing strong emotions will elicit our own fight or flight response, but instead of fighting or fleeing for them, we may be compelled to fight with or flee from them. If this occurs, repair the rupture as soon as possible. This is an opportunity to demonstrate humility, the acceptance of imperfection, responsibility, and the ability to put things right – all-important growth points. Being a parent is rewarding and it is difficult.

We all know that to be completely true. Children look to their parents for emotional regulation and safety during difficult times, so parents play an important role. It is critical for parents to be able to control their own emotions in order to support their children. Make some time for yourself. Spend time with family or friends.  Take care of yourself, you cannot pour from an empty cup!

Resources and Sources:

  1. Howes, Valerie. “6 Simple Games That Teach Your Kid Self-Regulation.” Today’s Parent, 4 June 2020,