What is Self-Regulation?

Self-regulation is a vital skill needed to complete day-to-day tasks efficiently. But, the term is used so broadly and defined in so many ways that you can get confused on what it ACTUALLY is. Although we have talked about self-regulation in a previous post, let’s clarify what it is, what it isn’t, and everything in between.

Self-regulation is your ability to change arousal levels to meet and manage the energy demands of a presented task or situation. It is how we mentally, emotionally, and physically adapt to daily stressors in our environment.

When self-regulation is at its optimal, we can respond appropriately to given situations and focus on tasks. When it is out of sorts, we feel out of control, we become rigid, and we are unable to adapt, leading to emotional outbursts.

There are some factors that play a role in self-regulation difficulties. These include:

  • Being sick or fatigued
  • Changes in routine
  • Energy drains throughout the day, making stress hard to manage as the day goes on
  • Difficulties with processing sensory information

When a child has self-regulation difficulties, it can affect how they learn, how they make and maintain friendships, or how they follow through with activities. Long-term, this can lead to anxiety, social awkwardness, and low self-esteem.

How can I tell if my child is dysregulated or just throwing a temper tantrum?

We addressed this topic in our Tantrums vs. Meltdowns post, but let’s recap.

A tantrum is an emotional outburst that results when your child did not get what they wanted, whether it was a toy at the store or winning a game of Candy Land. Even though they are upset and tossing a fit, they still have some control of their actions and will most likely stop when their emotions subside and realize that their behavior is not producing their desired outcome.

Dysregulation is a meltdown, an emotional flood because they can no longer tolerate the current stressors they are dealing with. Here, control is limited and there is no real way of stopping it. All you can do for them is console them, giving them time, and let them experience their feelings.

The two can look similar, especially when you ask them to do something, or you tell them “no.” The difference is that a child having a tantrum can still be reasoned with and, despite their initial response, the behavior can last a few minutes. A child having a meltdown won’t be able to do that and the disruption may last up to an hour.

Also, a child with a tantrum is reacting to a single moment in their day, while a child with a meltdown has been the build up of challenging situations and stresses throughout their day and have hit their threshold. It’s like having a hard day at work, coming home to a messy house, and your spouse asks, “What’s for dinner?”. Yeah, insert meltdown here.

Is Self-Regulation and Self-Control the same thing?

Because the two are related to each other, most people will use these terms interchangeably. But for the record, they are NOT the same!

Self-control is a social skill and part of executive functioning. It is the ability to withhold wants and impulses that cannot be immediately fulfilled.

Self-regulation, on the other hand, is about maintaining our own emotional, mental and physical homeostasis by either seeking or reducing various sensory inputs. A good analogy of this difference is with food. Self-control would be to not eat dessert because you are on a diet. Self-regulation is when you decide not to eat dessert because you are already full.

Another difference is what these two are governed by. The area that is responsible for self-control is part of the executive functions of the brain (the prefrontal cortex), where rationality and judgement reside. Meanwhile, self-regulation is controlled by the limbic system, which deals with emotions and arousal level.

Why is that important to know? Because we can’t really expect consistent self-control from children when their prefrontal cortex is not fully matured. We also can’t expect them to have self-control if they are trying to self-regulate through a difficult situation. However, if we can help our kids self-regulate, then we also can help them have better self-control as they get older.

How can I help my child regulate?

  • Help them identify the stressors that are causing a negative emotion, as well as ways to reduce or cope with them
  • Prepare them in advance if you know an event will be stressful for them. Help them come up with strategies to deal or special cues to you if it becomes too much.
  • Talk about emotions with them as they may not be able to tie their actions with their feelings well. This includes naming their feelings and helping them ride it out if need be.
  • Offer praise when they’ve handled a difficult task well
  • The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, so try to model appropriate self-regulation to your child when you can…and admit when you didn’t to them.  
  • Help them find new things to enjoy. By partaking in activities or interests they like, the happier and calmer they will be throughout the day.
  • Develop a sensory diet which can be implemented throughout the day to keep your child calm, relaxed, and attentive

What if they’re really struggling?

Self-regulation can vary day-to-day. Everyone has good days and bad days. If you notice your child is struggling to a point it is affecting their participation in school, at home, or with others, talk to your pediatrician who may refer to an Occupational Therapist who can help.

Other Related posts:
Self-Regulation Activities
Course Notes: The Whole-Brain Child Series

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