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Parent’s guide: self-regulation

Imagine this: friends take their 4 year olds to a toy store but the toys that the children wanted are sold out.

One of the children has a meltdown, taking 20 minutes to calm down. The other reacts very differently – after a few minutes of disappointed silence, they ask if it’s okay to pick out a different toy.

But what made one child cope better than the other? The child was able to self-regulate their emotions.

Self-regulation is an important skill your little one will develop. It will help them in a variety of ways such as making it easier to develop friendships, persevere in activities, focus on tasks as well as cope with the stresses of everyday life.

As a toddler, your little one will find it difficult to regulate their emotions but over time and with your support they will learn to moderate their feeling and impulses.

There are many processes at work when it comes to self-regulation, but language skills are especially important.

This is because there is a link direct between language skills, thinking and self-expression – so the reason why most 2 year olds find self-regulation difficult is that their language skills aren’t fully developed.

Routines are useful when supporting your little one’s development of self-regulation. Routines give children a sense of stability, this is why nurseries often have daily routines in place.

These routines protect children from feeling stressed and so in the earlier years help them to self-regulate more easily.

Children also learn self-regulation by observing and copying adults. If you can show self-control and stay calm when facing frustrations, you’ll be in a better position to help your little one. As they grow, you can also help them learn strategies to help them control their emotions.

It’s important to remember that being tired makes self-regulation difficult both for children and adults. This is why naps are important for your little one, particularly if they’re under 3 years old.

If your child has a good sleep routine, they are more likely to find it easier to show good self-regulation skills.

Top tips for supporting your little one in developing self-regulation

· There are times when children can’t always be first, be chosen to do something or have the first thing they see. Not being able to have what you want is a major life lesson they’ll be learning.

Learning to manage their feelings in these situations is important and it’s done best in a context where your little one feels loved and there is nothing really at stake.

So, family games are great opportunities to practice this for example Snap, Kerplunk or Picture Lotto can help your little one learn to wait and take turns.

During a series of games, let your little one win so you can model losing – talk about this and then at some point see how your little one copes if they lose.

· Distractions! A useful strategy for both children and adults when it comes to self-regulation is distraction.

As adults, when something is frustrating, we often turn our attention to something else.

For young children, it’s best to offer an active distraction like turning their attention to a favourite toy.

· Taking things step-by-step is also a good way to help your little one develop self-regulation. This can apply to tasks like planting seeds, crafting something together or baking. This will help your little one learn to persevere in activities.

These activities are useful to look back on as well, as they can remind your child of previous successes, helping them stay motivated to get a task done.

· Your expectations should be consistent. It’s particularly important that they learn that boundaries don’t move because they have a tantrum.

Most children will at some point want to test the boundaries so it’s important that expectations are reasonable and that having set them, you are prepared to follow through.

So, for example, if you said once your little one is dressed, they can watch TV, you should wait till they are fully dressed until the TV is turned on.

· Another strategy for self-regulation is to think ahead.

If your little one is getting dressed for bed, you can remind them of the book you will share once they’re ready for bed.

This will help them self-regulate by looking forward to the future to the reward/positive activity.

Additional Resources


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