How Kids Learn Self Regulation

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How do children develop self-regulation skills – and who cares?

First of all, what are self-regulation skills?  Self-regulation is the ability to focus your attention, control your emotions, and manage your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.  These skills – often referred to as the executive functions of the brain – are critical for healthy child development as well as adult adjustment in life.

If your child has trouble focuses on a task that requires patience and persistence, that isn’t easy or immediately gratifying, they will have more difficulties completing their education and maintaining a job.

If your child has trouble controlling their emotional reactions – if they get too angry or too anxious and can’t effectively calm themselves down – they’ll have more behavioral and social problems.

If your child can’t tolerate changes in plans, not getting their way, or other people’s perspectives, they’ll have significantly more conflicts in their life.

We all have fluctuating emotions, primitive urges, strong impulses at times.  As the saying goes, it’s okay to feel whatever you feel, it’s what you do with it that counts. What you do with it – how you express your thoughts and feelings – goes a long way to determining how well you’ll get along with others and how happy you’ll be.

So, how do children develop self-regulation skills?  What affects a child’s ability to regulate their emotions and behaviors?  There are several important factors.

High levels of environmental stress – ranging from chronic busyness to adverse childhood experiences (ACES) such as abuse or neglect – make us more likely to be emotionally reactive, rather than thoughtfully responsive.

And, of course, there are individual differences in children’s temperaments and adult personalities.  Some of us are more prone to being highly emotionally sensitive and reactive.  Some of us less so.

But the biggest contributing factor, and the one we have the most say over, is this: children develop self-regulation through attuned relationships with self-regulating adults.

I’ve come to believe this is the single most important sentence in understanding our children’s emotional development and in determining our children’s well-being. It’s worth repeating and reflecting on.


Children develop self-regulation through attuned relationships with self-regulating adults.


The prerequisite for having children who can pay attention and think clearly, who can control their difficult emotions, who can act compassionately and civilly – is that WE act this way as well.

I look around at the stress levels of friends and colleagues and clients.  I read and listen to the news filled with vitriolic verbal attacks on our fellow citizens in this country and on our fellow human-beings on this planet.  I pick up on entertainment and social media snippets that too often spill over into rude, crude, and what used to be socially unacceptable.

I’m not a puritan by any stretch of the imagination.  I’m certainly far from perfect.  Yet I can’t help but feel a deep sense of sadness and loss over the public discourse that has become so hostile and dis-regulated.  Then I get angry about what it’s doing to our children!

And then I pause to catch my breath.  I breathe several slow, quiet breaths that shift gears in my nervous system from “fight or flight” to “tend and befriend” mode.  I remember that ranting and raging at, or retreating and withdrawing from, society right now doesn’t serve me, my family, or any of the families I work with.

I, we, must all come together to be the change we want to see in the world.  We must return again and again to self-care for the caregiver. We must practice PAUSING to notice when our nerves are frayed, our attention is wandering, our minds are racing, our pulse is pounding, our voice is shouting or choking or gone completely mute.

And then we must choose to take the time, schedule the time, to recharge and refresh.  Ten, twenty, thirty minutes a day of meditation, prayer, music, a fresh-air walk, a scalp massage, a chat with a friend.  Anything that nourishes you is worth spending time on each day.  It’s vital, in fact.  Remember, you can’t give what you don’t have.

If we don’t return to better regulating ourselves, we cannot possibly attend to our children’s needs for calm, caring guidance in learning how to regulate their own thoughts and feelings.

Our kids literally calibrate their nervous system on ours.  If we are erratic and volatile, so will they learn to be.  If we are calm, cool, and collected when facing life’s challenges, so will they learn to be.

Who cares about all this? I do.  And I’m betting you do too.

Peter Montminy, Ph.D. is a child psychologist, mindfulness teacher, and father of four. Learn more about his educational programs and private consultations at