• Tricia Thornton

How Can a Child Self-Regulate?

You may have heard this term, "self-regulate". It is a well-used word these days for the way an individual can calm themselves in a stressful situation. A simple definition is that it is the way someone handles emotions, positive or negative. Some children have this skill more innately, and others need help developing the skill of self-regulation. It is even evident with infants. When a baby is agitated during feedings or diaper changing, this may indicate they have a harder time self-soothing. Later, this develops into a lack of self-regulation. As this child gets older, a parent may tend to want to rescue the child from feeling negative emotions. The child then turns to the parent as their external source of self-regulation.


So, how do you help a child to mature their skills to regulate their emotions? One simple way is to help coach them in real-life situations BEFORE they occur. In other words, preparation before a stressful event will help the child not to be caught off-guard. Starting back to school in the fall, beginning Kindergarten, entering middle school, going to their first sleep over, going to their first school event...these are all examples of typical events in a child's life. However a child who has a hard time regulating, these situations can cause a range of negative emotions.


Let's take the example of going back to school...some ways to prepare are the following:

  • Go to the school and walk through the halls before their first day. Walk through a typical day's schedule.

  • Draw out a map of where they will go from class to class. If they are younger, draw out where the cafeteria, the playground, the bathrooms, etc.

  • Role play a typical conversation they may have when they walk into the classroom for the first time. What might a friend say to them? How will they answer? What might the teacher ask? How would they reply to the adult?

  • Discuss in the event that they become nervous, what can they do in the moment to calm themselves (self-regulate)?

What are some tangible techniques that a child can do in the moment to calm themselves?

  • Deep breaths! This is key. Teach them to breath in through their nose with their mouths closed and then slowly let the breath out of their mouths. You can pretend you are blowing bubbles or blowing out a birthday candle. This is a good visual.

  • Have a squishy that is small enough to fit in their pocket. The child can squeeze the squashy several times concentrating on a positive thought. You may need to get permission from the teach for the child to have the squishy (with the understanding that it will remain in their pocket the whole day).

  • Pick a spot that the child can look at and concentrate on it. This is a diversion from the negative situation right in front of them.

  • For younger children especially, diversion is key. Start singing a song, repeating a poem or phrase, telling them a story. So, in the grocery store, pointing out another cereal they can have that is still yummy or waving to them and getting their attention away from the object may be enough.

The following video is just a bit over two minutes and is a good summary of why it is important to help a child learn how to self-regulate. As stated in my article about brain development, the upstairs and downstairs brains need to be in proper communication to be able to manage emotions. Learning how to self-regulate will help to effectively react when the amygdala senses a stressful situation and sees a need to freeze or flee. Understanding how to regulate emotions, positive or negative, will ensure more success in life.


Tricia Thornton, MA, LPC, RPT

615-212-9977

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