Self-regulation is the ability to monitor and manage your energy states, emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in ways that are acceptable and produce positive results such as well-being, loving relationships, and learning. It is how we deal with stressors and as such, lays the foundation for all other activity. Developing this ability requires self-awareness, emotional intelligence, efficient filtering of sensory stimulation, coping effectively with stress, relating well to others, and sustaining focus. It is one of the big developmental tasks of childhood. Sometimes, kids develop it naturally from being around self-regulating adults, from playing and exercising, from being in nature, eating healthy foods, getting plenty of sleep. Other times, however, kids are over-stimulated, around adults who are stressed and/or dys-regulated, and are not getting enough exercise, time outside in nature, sleep, hydration, and healthy food. These kids struggle with attention, learning, impulse control and relationships.
Self-regulation involves the whole person/child:
Physical: biology, temperament
Emotional: personality, exposure to trauma, ability to inhibit impulses,
Mental: focus, shift of focus, control, management of distractions & frustration
Social: interpersonal interactions, empathy, values
Self-regulation takes energy. When a child acts out or melts down, it is because s/he has no more fuel for managing stressors. That’s why it’s important to notice what stresses your children and what soothes them; to teach them mindfulness skills; to play with them; to make sure they get exercise and plenty of sleep.
Dr. Stewart Shanker uses a car analogy to explain self-regulation, which I have paraphrased:
Self-regulation is like maintaining a consistent rate of acceleration. If we want to go 25 mph, then we will need to adjust the pressure to the accelerator to allow for changes to the road, incline and wind. Driving requires constant changes depending on traffic conditions and speed zones, etc. Learning to accelerate, brake, and change gears smoothly takes time and practice. This is quite similar to children learning to self-regulate. Some children are always pushing too hard on the accelerator, while others jump between gears quickly, and some are slow to accelerate. Children need time and support to master the ability to find and sustain their optimum speed and level of arousal while dealing with a range of stimuli and stressors.