In a behavioral context, self regulation refers to the ability to act in a long term context consistent with your deepest values (Psychology Today). What does this mean for a child who is still developing a moral compass? Primarily that they value the power of adults and morally want to please them. It may also mean that they deeply value candy! In either case, the child shows a resolute decision to forego the immediate pleasure to attain a greater reward. In an emotional context, self regulation refers to the ability to calm yourself when upset or even keep yourself from getting upset in a the first place when some sort of trigger arises. Kids do not have the full cognitive ability to self regulate at all times, their brains simply are not developed enough to do so. Hence, tantrums occur. Learning self regulation is a lengthy process that occurs throughout development and can still be learned into adulthood.
Developmentally, even newborns turn their heads away from things they perceive as noxious such as, loud noises or bright lights. By about age 12 to 18 months, children are able to change their behaviors upon request, if not all the time. They respond to social and verbal cues from their parents such as "blow kisses". By about age two, if a known caregiver is not present, they are able to transfer these skills with people they don't know as well. From age 3 to 11, these skills continue to grow. Kids are beginning to learn that they need to wait until mom is off the phone until they can receive that snack they want. Of course, they are still not able to completely resist impulses at this age, as any parent of a young child will attest!
Older kids and adolescents, while better at self regulating than younger children, may still have problems curbing impulses. As their brains develop, though, they are better able to know what works for them and what doesn't (parents also are learning these things about their own children). For example, a child may decide to go outside and play when they are angry with a sibling simply because they internally know it will distract them from the upsetting incident. Similarly, an adolescent may use that same intuition to reach out to a friend to help them calm their nerves before a tough test at school.
What might keep a child from being able to comply with requests or calm themselves down? Many factors as it turns out. A child who doesn't want to play with a certain toy is more likely to help put it away. Other factors such as fatigue or hunger can affect all of us in being able to keep our emotions in check. Whatever the situation, kids who buy into the request have an easier time complying than those who don't agree. For this reason, it's recommended to give the request a positive spin rather than a negative. For example, instead of saying, "You can't have candy for breakfast!', say, "How about some delicious eggs for breakfast?" It's always a good idea to help your child see, in as few words as possible, the positive aspects of a given choice.
The following are also great ways to help your child self regulate as they grow from infants to adolescence: (Gillespie, 2006)
- Observe: A baby will tell you she's hungry by fussing or crying. But an older child is harder to read. They may come home from school out of sorts. You may need to help them to regulate themselves by offering a snack or sitting down to talk with them. You can also help identify their personal triggers such as crowded spaces or noisy areas.
- Respond: Be aware of your child's particular needs. Do they need some time and space? Or do they need tighter routines and order? In the above example, a child may need to move their body to help them reorganize themselves after a busy day or a fight with a friend.
- Provide structure and predictability: Let your child know if things may change. Give them an idea of what's happening that day or week. Keep a family calendar.
- Keep it developmentally appropriate: You can't expect a toddler to sit quietly in a waiting room for half an hour. Bring toys or games to keep them occupied. For older kids, ask them if they need some space. Let them know you are there when they need you.
- Set age appropriate limits: For younger kids, for example, they need to stay in line so the teacher knows where they are. Explain why teachers have the expectations that they do. For older kids, develop contracts or agreements to let them know you respect their safety and their space.
- Show empathy and caring: For all kids, no matter their age, it's vitally important that we as parents respect their needs and treat them as people of value. In the long run, this is what helps them handle strong emotions.