What is self-regulation?
Self-regulation is the process of recognizing your emotional states as they come and managing your behavior and reactions, especially in stressful or tense moments. It is natural to find ourselves elevated in moments of high frustration, or feel like we may be close to snapping at someone. If we are not careful, our emotional states can be destructive to ourselves or others because the careful decision-making part of our brains is inhibited while our "fight/flight/freeze" part of our brains takes over. Everybody has moments where they lose their cool and say or do something that we later feel bad about. For children, this may look like temper tantrums, yelling, running, hiding, crying, or hitting. Learning to recognize when we are beginning to become angry or overwhelmed can help us to pause and carefully consider what appropriate next steps to take to help our brains and bodies cool down.
Regulation is especially challenging for children, so their grown-ups can help by being a co-regulator, or a model of appropriate behavior strategies during emotionally elevated states. You can help your child regulate their emotions in many ways. Regularly naming your feelings as they come up helps your child realize that all feelings are a normal part of the human experience and are not a permanent state. Note any somatic sensations that come along with the feeling, like tears welling up or heart racing--this helps your child learn to pair body sensations with feelings. Just like a growling belly is a signal that you are hungry and should feed yourself, a racing heart and clenched fists is a signal that you are angry and need to let off some steam in an appropriate way. Finally, stating an appropriate action to follow the emotional state helps your child learn what next steps to take to help them regulate their own emotions. Saying something like "Oh, my heart is beating fast and my face is turning red--I am feeling angry right now. I am going to walk away and spend some time alone to cool down so I don't say something hurtful that I don't really mean" is a great way to model self-regulation. When your child is in an emotional state, remaining calm rather than showing frustration is important so that you are modeling the behavior you want your child to do. In a calm but clear voice you could say "Your voice is loud and your face is red. I can see that you are very angry right now. That's okay, you have the right to be angry right now. Yelling and hitting is not okay. I know you know that too. You need to let off some steam. Would you like to do that alone, or with me?" Let your child choose from several appropriate choices, such as walking away, going for a walk, playing alone in their room, throwing a ball, or even yelling a silly word or phrase at an inanimate object like a tree.
Below are some resources to help strengthen emotional recognition and self-regulation skills.