The essential emotional skill of self-regulation stems from your child’s natural ability to maintain homeostasis. As he grows and develops physiologically, your attunement to and support of his needs help him self-regulate at higher levels. Self-regulation involves the ability to control one’s bodily functions and impulses and the ability to concentrate. It means controlling urges, weighing consequences, and making informed choices regardless of whether an authority figure is present. Self-regulation is a complex process that emerges slowly.
Over the past three decades, developmental psychologists, neuroscientists, and others have studied self-regulation and its essential role in helping children to thrive and to grow. If your child knows how to calm down when he is upset, he both feels better in the moment and establishes connections in his brain’s circuits that help him manage stress. On the other hand, a child with poor self-regulation is likely to act on aggressive impulses, to have difficulty delaying gratification, and to be distractible and unable to focus on tasks. Therefore, he is more likely to have emotional and social problems as he moves out into the world.
Self-regulation is not just about social and emotional skills. It also is related to cognitive behaviors, such as remembering and paying attention. Children who cannot control their emotions at age four are unlikely to be able to follow their teacher’s directions at age six. In fact, according to Tools of the Mind, an organization that developed an early childhood curriculum of the same name, kindergarten teachers view a child’s ability to self-regulate as a better indicator of school readiness than IQ or entry-level reading or math skills—and an increasing amount of scientific evidence supports these teachers. Self-regulation enables a child to follow class-room rules and, on a cognitive level, to solve problems and to learn.
Your baby requires high-quality regulation and discipline from you in order to develop his own self-regulation and self-discipline. I found disciplining my children to be the most difficult challenge in parenting because I do not enjoy saying no, giving “tough love,” or seeing my children experience the pain of not getting what they want. As they grew older, they pressured me with demands based on their desires, and it was hard for me to resist them and to remain confident in my judgment. But when 18-year-old daughters Emi or Mari complained about curfews or driving speed limits, I remembered them as toddlers, persistently demanding a cookie, and wished that I had been more consistent in those early years. If I had set clear boundaries and stuck to them, I would have helped them learn self-regulation; instead, they had to learn it on their own. I have realized that the patterns involved in skills, such as impulse control, delay of gratification, adherence to social rules, and self-regulation, are easier to learn and reinforce through routines, regularity, and consistency at a young age.
Your baby’s behaviors are a natural extension of his development. In fact, throughout your child’s development and into adolescence, both desirable and undesirable behaviors are often a manifestation of his current developmental stage. Knowledge about what behaviors to expect at different ages can increase your effectiveness at teaching your child to self-regulate.
Writer Kelly Bartlett discusses self-regulation in her article “Natural Discipline for the Early Years” in Green Child Magazine (2013). She explains that from birth to age two, it is natural for children to use all of their senses to explore their environment. They touch, pick up, grab, bite, pinch, and throw in order to understand their world. If these behaviors are not controlled, they can cause harm to people and objects. It is helpful to remember that a baby’s intention is not malicious; it is simply the result of his instinct to learn. At one year old, your baby’s brain is not mature enough to adhere to the word “no.” He does not have the neural connections to stop, to remember words, to think through options or consequences, and to decide not to act, no matter how many times you tell him.
At this early age, it makes more sense to work with, not against, your child’s natural predisposition to explore and to learn. Bartlett suggests designing a “yes” environment that removes safety threats and allows your baby to explore freely, as much as possible. For example, you might allow your baby to explore the lower drawers in the kitchen or to pull cushions off the couch—activities that are not harmful and are easily adjusted. In addition, you can redirect him from negative to positive activities. When you provide your child with a maximum of freedom and a minimum of “no’s,” you keep him from feeling constantly restricted. Choices help him feel a sense of control and agency. Humor helps, too.
Most experts agree that you cannot spoil infants or teach them correct behavior. They cannot control their emotions on their own. Although your baby is born with some ability to self-regulate, he needs you to calm and soothe him when he is upset. During his first months of life, as he adjusts to being in the world, he operates on a basic level devoted to feeding, digestion, thermoregulation, and sleep. By tuning in to your baby’s emotions at this stage, you instinctively provide the external regulation he needs when he becomes overwhelmed. This responsive relationship helps your baby develop his emerging self-regulatory skills.
Almost abruptly at around three months of age, your baby’s learning accelerates. He begins to use some self-calming behaviors more effectively. For example, he brings his hands to his mouth to soothe himself or uses vocalization, facial expressions, and other cues to make a reassuring connection. As weeks pass, your baby adds thumb sucking, rocking, or holding a plush toy to his self-soothing practices.
Another shift in development happens at around eight months and coincides with your baby’s newfound independence through locomotion, more intentional communication, and other emerging skills. This stage brings a new set of regulatory demands for caregivers. Your job is no longer about simply helping your baby find comfort. Now you must help him learn to regulate proximity and distance while he deals with conflicting needs for emotional security and increased freedom and exploration. You can help by encouraging him to explore on his own while knowing that you are nearby as a home base when he needs it.
As your baby starts toddling, he moves into the greater world, and the days when you can control his environment are waning. He needs new kinds of limits—beyond simple physical ones—in order to stay safe and to learn self-control so that later in life, when you are not present, he knows how to keep himself safe. For you, the parent, it can be challenging to shift from responding to all of your infant’s needs and merely redirecting him, as needed, to setting limits for a toddler, while respecting his need for more freedom.
This shift usually happens when your toddler starts asserting himself and individuating by saying, “no” to you. At two years old, his will is developing, and he strives for autonomy. With increasing mobility and ability to accomplish more activities independently, he gains self-assurance and confidence. Although he regularly adds new capabilities and independence, he does not yet have the ability to make logical choices. So, the task of setting limits and examples, especially regarding health and safety, is still yours.
Your toddler needs to know that it is not necessary to suppress, hide, or feel ashamed of his feelings. At the same time, you can teach him how to express and be true to his emotions without having tantrums. When you acknowledge and accept his feelings and then mirror them back to him, you show empathy and help him learn to handle his strong emotions. At the same time, you do not have to change your boundaries or give in to his demands.
It may be difficult to believe that your toddler can understand and adhere to limits. If you are consistent in maintaining boundaries and you are clear that they are not negotiable—even if he has a tantrum—then his brain becomes wired to accept the limits, and he learns to manage his emotions. If he does not accomplish this task in early childhood, he will need to rewire himself for self-control when he is older. Self-control helps your child calm his emotions before acting, check his impulses, and postpone gratification. These skills in turn help him listen attentively, learn, and make better choices.
As you step into the limit-setting aspect of parenting, feelings about the way you were disciplined as a child may surface. Just as your child learns from your modeling, you learned from your parents. When you approach discipline with openness and care, rather than that of an inflexible authority figure, you create a climate of trust and support, rather than fear and frustration.
You can use a yin and yang approach to help your child learn to regulate his emotions. By understanding his temperament and noticing when he seems overwhelmed or underwhelmed, you can help your baby increase or decrease his emotional energy and restore balance. For instance, if your child is overexcited, you can actively help him bring his nervous system and energy to a balanced state (downregulate) by redirecting him to a calmer activity. A time-out can help him disengage from an emotional situation, especially if you frame the time-out as time to downregulate (versus time to be punished) and guide him to use this technique for future challenges. When needed, you also can help your child increase his level of excitement (upregulate) by speaking in a more energetic voice, going outside, or playing an active game with him. By helping your child regulate before he is able to do so on his own, you not only provide a model for him, but also demonstrate that self-regulation is possible and pleasurable.
In his blog, Essential Parenting, Chris White, MD, a pediatrician and parent educator, describes his own yin and yang approach to discipline. The yin aspects of discipline, he says, speak to unconditional love, nourishment of the parent-child relationship, and acceptance of the child for who he is. These practices create a secure foundation from which your child gains confidence to try new things and to make his own choices. This freedom is balanced by yang aspects of discipline, which are concerned with mentoring your child and setting healthy boundaries for him. He learns from watching you, and when you set firm limits for him, you create an environment that provides security.
Together, yin and yang influences create wholeness in discipline. You can further balance your discipline by making adjustments toward more yin or yang, according to the needs of the situation and your individual child.
In her book Self-Regulation in Early Childhood: Nature and Nurture, Martha B. Bronson, EdD, offers the following strategies for helping children self-regulate. Note that each of these strategies can be customized to suit your child, your parenting style, and your family.
- Observe closely—Your baby sends cues that tell you when he is hungry, tired, or ready to play.
- Respond—By responding, you bring attention to your baby’s cues. Be alert to your child’s particular needs for regularity, novelty, and interaction.
- Provide structure and predictability—Your baby needs consistent caregivers and routines for everyday activities, such as feeding, sleeping, and diapering or toileting.
- Arrange developmentally appropriate environments—Low shelves, uncluttered tables, and age-appropriate materials can provide the infrastructure needed for your child to build and challenge his abilities. You can also change and add to the environment as your child’s abilities progress.
- Define age-appropriate limits—Be direct with your child about your behavioral expectations .
- Show empathy and caring—Recognize your child’s needs, and treat them as important. When you do this, he feels good about himself and more easily copes with strong emotions.
You will be more patient with both yourself and your child when you recognize your respective temperaments, personalities, and the dynamics between them. If you learn about his developmental process, you can understand his perspective and changing needs. Then, when you combine this understanding with consistency and confidence in your own judgment, you can select strategies that support the development of self-regulation in your child. This process may be difficult, but it is one of the greatest gifts that you can give him.