If you’re a parent, chances are you’ve witnessed a tantrum or two in your day. This is expected from two-year-olds but if your child reaches school age and meltdowns and outbursts are still frequent, it may be a sign that they are having difficulty with emotional self-regulation.
It’s normal for a two-year-old to have tantrums however when your child is five and above and still having meltdowns, then there is reason for concern. You need to focus on helping them learn to control their emotions and actions – this is called ‘’self-regulation.’’ Some children are born having a harder time with self-regulation while others don’t develop the skill if parents don’t jump in right away to solve their problems and help them calm down.
What is self-regulation and what does it mean?
Self-regulation is the ability to understand and manage your behavior and your reactions to feelings and things happening around you. This is a skill that develops over time. Children who struggle with it have trouble figuring out what will help them calm down when they get upset. They have a hard time being flexible when things change and might react with angry outbursts.
It is very easy for people to confuse self-regulation with self-control as they are related but not the same. Self-control is more of a social skill while on the other hand self-regulation is more like a thermostat i.e it kicks on and off to keep a room at a certain temperature, tracks temperature changes, compares them to the setpoints, and knows whether to heat or cool the room.
It includes being able to:
- regulate reactions to strong emotions like frustration, excitement, anger, and embarrassment
- calm yourself down after something exciting or upsetting
- focus on a task
- refocus attention on a new task
- handle frustration without an outburst
- behave in ways that help you get along with others.
Why is self-regulation important?
Self-regulation is a very important aspect of the growth and development; and learning of children. As children grow, self-regulation helps them to develop:
- Mental and physical health.
- Attention and problem-solving skills.
- Language development.
- School success – for instance, sitting and listening in the classroom and behaving in socially acceptable ways.
- Becoming more independent. Self-regulation gives children the ability to make appropriate decisions about behavior and learn how to conduct themselves in new situations without an adult present.
How and when does self-regulation develop?
Children develop self-regulation through modeling appropriate behavior i.e by watching the adults around them and through warm and responsive relationships. This begins when children are babies and the perfect example is when a child sucks their thumb for comfort or turns their head away from the adult when they are tired.
- Toddlers can wait short periods for food and toys while others may still snatch a toy from another child if that’s what they want. Others may throw a tantrum.
- Preschool-going children will begin to know how to play with others and what is expected of them. For instance sharing toys, taking turns and interactive play will occur at this stage.
- School-age children get better at controlling their needs and wants, empathizing with others, and will be able to sort out their conflicts without fighting.
- Preteens and teenagers become better at planning, sticking with difficult tasks, behaving in socially appropriate ways, and considering how their behavior may affect others. For instance instead of getting overly angry over curfew time, try and negotiate with parents.
Why do some children struggle with self-regulation?
Dr. Mathew Rouse, Ph.D., and clinical psychologist views emotional control issues as a combination of temperament and learned behavior. He quotes
“A child’s innate capacities for self-regulation are temperament and personality-based,” he explains. ‘’Some babies have trouble self-soothing and get very distressed when you’re trying to bathe them or put on clothes. Those kids may be more likely to experience trouble with emotional self-regulation when they’re older. The environment also plays a major role. When parents give in to tantrums or work overtime to help soothe their children when they get upset, this results in their children having a hard time developing self-discipline. In those situations, the child is looking to the parents to be external self-regulators,” Dr. Rouse says. “If that’s a pattern that happens again and again, and a child can ‘outsource’ self-regulation, then that’s something that might develop as a habit. Children with ADHD or anxiety may find it particularly challenging to manage their emotions, and need more help to develop emotional regulation skills.’’
How to teach and develop self-regulation in children?
Now that you are convinced that self-regulation is a good thing but might be wondering where do you begin with your child/children? Here are a few tips and suggestions to help get you started:
- Provide a structured and predictable daily schedule and routine.
- Roleplay or model with children, to practice what to say or how to act in certain situations.
- Change the environment by eliminating distractions such as turning off the TV or dimming lights inside the house, or providing a soothing soft toy when you sense your child is becoming upset.
- Teach and talk about genuinely expressing and labeling feelings. Review home/classroom rules regulary.
- Allow children to let off steam by creating a calming down corner, tent, swing, canopy or den with a pile of pillows or cushions to lie down in.
- Always try to stay calm and firm in your voice and actions even when a child is “out of control”!
- Anticipate transitions beforehand and provide ample warning to the child or use picture schedules or a timer to warn of transitions.
How do you help regulate preteens and teenagers?
- Teaching self-regulation skills through modeling them, providing opportunities to practice the skills, and monitoring and reviewing the skills as parents/caregivers.
- Providing a warm, safe, and responsive relationship in which teens and preteens are comfortable with making mistakes.
- Structuring the environment to make self-regulation easier and more manageable by limiting opportunities for risk-taking behavior and providing positive discipline strategies.
Games are also a great way of teaching self-regulation to children because when you think about it playing games helps us to wait for our turn, follow rules, resilience, and tolerate losing. Some fun self-control games are red light, green light; freeze dance; loud or quiet; Simon says; body part mix-up; and color moves among others.
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