Self Regulation and the Young Child

What is self regulation? I hear this term all the time in the child development world now. So what is it and why is it important?


Self regulation in child development is the ability to focus attention and control emotional response. Essentially it is the ability to manage your response to your environment, thoughts, and feelings. This is an ongoing process throughout life, but you learn the basis in childhood.


Have you ever seen a child melt down from a seemingly mundane exchange? To use the infamous example, a child begging for a red cup, being handed a red cup, and bursting into tears because they actually wanted a blue cup.


Say an adult had a cup they wanted. A word quirk of mine is that I have two insulated cups meant for hot liquid. I use one for tea and one for coffee. If you put tea in the coffee cup, your tea will taste like coffee. Gross. If I had someone make me a cup of tea but put it in my coffee cup how would I respond? In the world of problems this is minor. I doubt I'd be angry, certainly I wouldn't throw myself to the floor screaming. Maybe I would get up and switch the cup. Maybe I'd say, "Thank you, but the blue one is my designated coffee cup, would you please use the other one?" Maybe I'd be very slightly bothered but drink it anyway in appreciation of someone getting a drink for me.


Let's use a different example. Let's say I'm at work at a make believe office job and my boss is telling me we have a huge project due in two days. Two days is not nearly enough time to get the work completed. My boss is always setting ridiculous deadlines. I'm beyond annoyed and want to cuss them out. As an adult, I know I can't fly off the handle if I don't want to be fired. So I suggest a compromise, ask for additional help for the team or maybe I remove my self from the situation and take time to calm down and work out a plan.


In life there are many annoyances, major and minor. How you react to these moments depends on your ability to self regulate. You'd never be able to handle road rage, obnoxious bosses, well meaning idiots, or emergency situations without first working out these emotions in practice over more minor issues like what color cup you'd like to have at dinner.


Although it can be frustrating in the moment, take the time to help your child develop their self regulatory skills over these seemingly minor problems. It's minor to you, but it's a big deal to them, and this is an incredibly important part of being a child. Children aren't miniature adults, they are whole people with whole emotions, but they are developing people. They haven't developed the tools adults have. You grow and learn based on the problems you overcome. One day your child will be a teenager confronted with drugs, alcohol, college applications, grade point averages - how they react depends on the tools you gave them in early childhood. One day a friend may make them a cup of tea in the wrong cup or their boss may impose a ridiculous deadline. One day they may have to make tough medical decisions for themselves, for a child, or for you. How do you want them to react in those situations? How do you want them to react when emotioms run strong, and calm clear-headedness is hard to find?




A few thoughts to leave you with:


- Learning to overcome problems is an important part of becoming a member of society. Protecting children from problems means they won't learn how to handle them, and will fall apart when faced with life's challenges.


- Children function at the level of their brain development. Challenges are a good thing, but the brain can only handle what it's developmentally able to handle. Young children need help walking through their emotions, but practice makes progress.

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