Self regulation is a VITAL skill, and one that we use daily, but probably don’t give much thought. Emotional self regulation is the ability to monitor and manage our own behavior. With self regulation, we can calm ourselves down when we’re distressed, and pick ourselves up when we’re low. We can stop ourselves from saying or doing something that would have negative consequences. Self-regulation is developmental in nature, just like learning to walk, talk, and read.
What does it mean to self regulate? The Child Mind Institute defines Self-regulation as “The ability to manage your emotions and behavior in accordance with the demands of the situation. It includes being able to resist highly emotional reactions to upsetting stimuli, to calm yourself down when you get upset, to adjust to a change in expectations, and to handle frustration without an outburst. It is a set of skills that enables children, as they mature, to direct their own behavior towards a goal, despite the unpredictability of the world and our own feelings.”
We can have some BIG FEELINGS in our house, and my two autistic boys often struggle to control impulses when triggered by some situations and environments. I want to share some tips we use to help my boys on their journey to help manage their emotions and behavior. The key to learning self-regulation skills, is not to avoid situations that are difficult for kids to handle, but to prepare, empower, and coach kids through them and provide a supportive framework.
Just like learning to walk and learning to read, self-regulation is developmental in nature. So to support a child who has self-regulation delays, we need to meet them with an empathetic mindset so they can be more adaptive and functional-not a disciplinary model, where children are punished for being unable to control their emotions.
*Keep language minimal and concise: Don’t use a lot of language In the middle of the stressful moment. Behavior is often a reflection of the current nervous system. it’s not usually the time to discipline, explain, teach, or correct. It’s time to deescalate and help move past that fight or flight state response. Remember that when children are reacting negatively without pause in the moment, they are usually in survival mode. They cannot respond to logic or reason in this mindset and physiological state. Instead, stay calm, show empathy, help them become self-aware, and guide them through previously established calming strategies. This will be specific to the child’s needs and the situation.
*Don’t match their energy- I know, this one is hard! (And doing so is a recipe for chaos and disaster.) In the midst of children’s tantrums or meltdowns, challenge yourself to regulate. Children will tend to mirror the stress and emotions of the adults around them. What can happen is they are angry, so you get angry. They yell, so you yell louder. They stomp and yell, so you stomp and yell. When we are calm, we can better respond with compassion, and patience towards them. Remember that childs brains are still in development. Recognize that children need time and support to learn and practice regulation skills. It is important that you model self-regulation by remaining calm.
*Keep your eyes on the big picture: Some situations that didn’t affect my boys one day, can cause a massive break down on another. That’s because there are a variety of factors that can contribute to a child’s ability to regulate that day. When you start to see the triggers/patterns, you can be proactive about making sure their needs are met. Not all of our learners have the language or awareness to know what they need, so it’s our job to figure that out. Children need time outside, movement, sleep, diet- all of these factors affect a child’s ability to regulate.
Kids and young adults who struggle with self-regulation often need extra physical activity. One simple strategy is to incorporate movement and brain breaks into the day. Sometimes a 5 minute swing break can work wonders. Be aware of triggering situations- for example, no transition warnings, no schedule or routine, poor sleep the night before, too much sugar, confusion over what is expected from them, and an inability to communicate. These set the groundwork for empowering children to one day have the ability to soothe themselves during stress.
*Teach and reinforce adaptability: Approach self-regulation skills in the same way we approach other skills, academic or social: isolate that skill and provide any supports needed and then practice. When you think of it as a skill to be taught — rather than “bad behavior” — it changes the tone and content of your feedback and interaction. Some students need help learning about emotions. I’ve found it’s easiest to learn to recognize feelings/emotions when they are actual pictures of the child in that feeling.
Play detective and see what calms your child, or work together to come up with calming strategies before they are needed. My 10 year old Parker and I have been working on breathing to feel calm. Breathing is our built-in all-natural regulator because deep breathing helps lower sympathetic nervous system responses. Ask your child to pretend they are blowing bubbles and only a long, slow breath will make a big bubble. Too fast and quick and the bubble will pop. I have a visual breathing app on my phone, and calming music, and sometimes we go lay down in his dark bedroom and just breathe. When emotions are big you can help your child vent and release. Stomp like a dinosaur, roar like a lion, ask for a big squeeze, throw ice on concrete. There is no one sized fits all. One child might hate to be touched, another might need deep squeezes, so keep experimenting and you will figure out what works.
PRACTICE these skills in small doses: Start by practicing when they are calm, and learn new skills in small doses. My oldest son Greyson, used to have a melt down if we went to Target and didn’t linger in the toy aisle. We didn’t always have the ability to do that, so at first, I tried going to Target without him. I realized this was no long term strategy, and not fair to Greyson. Instead, we worked on being able to go to Target without a breakdown. On our first trip, I was really only there to work with Greyson- not get real shopping done. I set a five minute timer on my phone, and had a list of one item I needed to get. Greyson was prepared in advance that we were only getting cereal, and then he would be able to pick a candy item from the check out line. It only took a few highly structured visits, and the laying down of expectations for the trip in advance to make Target an enjoyable and functional experience for all of us.
When teaching a new skill, start at a level appropriate for your child and help give them the tools to do the next right step independently. Help them develop a toolbox of coping strategies to use when dysregulated. The idea is to help children stop in the moment – stay calm and think – and not act on their big emotions. Like anything else- these strategies must be continually reviewed, evaluated, and changed when needed.
Self-regulation is a skill that needs to be supported in children because it is key to their overall success and happiness. Children who can cope with stress, anger, disappointment, and frustration are more able to do well in school, with friends, and at home. Remember that the more children practice regulating themselves, the easier it will become for them to cope with and adapt to change.