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Self regulation - taught not 'caught'

Updated: Apr 10, 2021

Here is something I’d like you to consider.

If a child cannot read, we teach.

If a child cannot multiply, we teach.

If a child cannot swim, we teach.

But what about this one: If a child cannot regulate their emotions, we….?

Too often that would end with “punish".

Self-regulation might seem like the holy grail of skills for our children to develop. It is talked about often, either as self-regulation or one of these variations: anger management, emotional control, self-control, and impulse control.

It is defined as, The ability to do what needs to be done in the optimal state for given situation.


Regulating one’s sensory needs, emotions, and impulses to meet the demands of the environment, reach goals and behave in a socially appropriate way.

It is so much more than just ‘keeping emotions in check’, right? And therefore, it is hardly surprising that one of the most common referrals that comes through my inbox for Occupational Therapy is, “Can you help my child to learn to manage their emotions appropriately”.

I understand the concern, emotional regulation impacts on everything we do in daily life, but allow me to also share these understandings:

1. Learning to regulate emotions is not an independently learned skill. Self-regulation develops only after an enormous amount of co-regulation – support and coaching in the context of loving, attached relationships.

2. Self-regulation, just like reading, multiplying, and swimming , is a taught skill. Children do not simply just learn by watching you or others. And just as with any taught skill, some children will need even more explicit (and repeated) teaching than others.

Self–regulation is no small thing. There are, in fact, four domains to it:

· Cognition (thinking and reasoning)

· Emotional

· Sensory (input from our 5 senses)

· Behavioral

Even if we only consider the first two, we know that reasoning is a struggle when our emotions have sway. We are asking a lot of children when we expect them to self-regulate, especially if we haven’t taught them how, and given them ample opportunities to practice with us before expecting them to take the reins.

The key to self-regulation is emotional intelligence. Research proves that children with higher EI (who know what they are feeling, what their emotions mean, and how these emotions can affect other people) do better academically, socially, and mental health-wise. The great news is that if we understand we have a role here, we can truly support our child.

Here are some key tips:

1. Help children learn emotional language. Label and validate feelings and maintain a non-judgmental dialogue about emotions in your home - all emotions are welcome (and don’t expect kids to get it right. Heck, we don’t either half the time)!

2. Be a model - describe and label your emotions with everyone in the family.

3. Teach your child skills to learn how to ride the wave of big emotions, get through the moment and use their body to help their brain feel calm and ready to learn. Sensory based tools are great as they are quick, and use less language- blowing bubbles, a tight cuddle, deep breathing, a hand massage, a weighted blanket, or some animal crawls.

4. Do it together- the art of co-regulation is being present with your child- “Let's do these exercises together to help us both feel calmer”.

A final tip is to enlist the help of a qualified Occupational Therapist. There is a reason we get referrals for emotional and self-regulation support so frequently! We are highly skilled in all the above tips and can coach both YOU and your child through them. We can see if there are barriers in any of the four domains and create a ‘break them down’ or ‘overcome them’ plan. We can help you, the parent, understand where you child is at and what is happening for them, and to manage your own expectations and emotions around this.

Let’s try this exercise again. If a child cannot regulate their emotions,

we…? TEACH!

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