Even as adults, we sometimes struggle with managing our emotions and mood (just think of the last time you met someone who had road rage or was impatient- or the last time you irritably lost control…). And yet, as parents, we may find ourselves getting frustrated with our children when they fail to control themselves. Refusing to listen, becoming excessively anxious or moody, throwing temper tantrums- what lies at the heart of all this is self-regulation.
What is self-regulation?
Self-regulation is the ability of a person to manage emotions, sensations, situations and distress- and to form appropriate responses that are socially acceptable and help to achieve positive goals such as learning, maintaining good relationships and well-being. Kids with good self-regulation skills are able to calm down (to return to a condition of stability or homeostasis), resist impulses, focus their attention and exert self-control. Simply stated, self-regulation is the ability to regulate emotions and control behaviour.
Why does self-regulation matter?
Studies show that a child’s capacity to self-regulate largely determines how well they will perform at school and how they will be later in life. This important life skill is related to many positive outcomes, such as success in school and university, social economic status, health and relationship satisfaction. Kids (and adults) who can self-regulate are generally less anxious, less angry and less hostile toward others.
A renowned study spanning over 4 decades, the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, started tracking 1,037 children since their birth in 1972 in Dunedin, New Zealand. The study looked at self-regulation, particularly self-control, in childhood and found that children who scored low on such measures (e.g. becoming easily frustrated, lacking persistence in reaching goals or performing tasks, having difficulty waiting their turn in line, etc.) were roughly three times more likely to wind up as poor, addicted, single parents or to have multiple health problems as adults, compared with children who behaved less impulsively as early as age three. The study also revealed that children who had more self-control enjoyed more health and wealth in adulthood than others who had even a bit less self-control.
“The early years are absolutely critical for how a person’s life turns out, and if you really want to make a difference to people’s lives, intervening early is key,” concludes Professor Richie Poulton, director of the study.
How can we help our child build self-regulation?
- When infants are born, the development of self-regulation occurs within the context of the infant-caregiver relationship. Babies are completely dependent upon their parents or primary caregivers to identify and respond to their needs. As time passes, responding to babies’ needs in a responsive and consistent manner helps them to learn that the feelings of distress they have are not permanent. Not only will they learn that these feelings will pass but they also begin to develop within themselves the capacity to take care of their feelings and impulses, and to feel secure in knowing that their needs will be met.
- When children are young, they learn how to self-regulate through play and games, so ensure plenty of free play time for them. Outdoor free play with peers (without adult interaction) is a great way to develop self-regulation. Hide-and-seek, a game of tag or ball games allow children to interact socially and to use their own coping mechanisms to problem-solve.
- Play games that require children to wait for directions before they act (e.g. Simon Says, What Time is it Mr. Wolf, etc.) or games that require taking turns (e.g board games).
- For older children, drama, art, team sports and music can help to build self-regulation. Encourage them to join a drama or art class, pick up a sport they enjoy, learn an instrument or join the junior orchestra.
- In order to remain in control in difficult situations, children need to have calming experiences. Practise deep breathing and ways to relax with your child, like spending time outdoors to appreciate nature or just talking things out. In Dr. Yik’s child’s kindergarten class, the children learned to calm themselves down when they were angry or upset by tracing their fingers of one hand with the other hand and doing “belly breathing”. See what works for your child and practise it together.
- Parents, caregivers and teachers should model good self-regulation and self-control. Use a calm tone in stressful situations. Exert self-control when things get disruptive or when you are upset.