Self-regulation: Why it’s hard to calm down sometimes

Why won’t you just stop!?

This is a question I think all parents ask at certain points. In these moments when your child appears to be out of control for no apparent reason. Or when their emotions seem to far outweigh the situation. When they seem to be making bad choices and won’t listen, or reason. Parenting in these situations can feel hugely frustrating, upsetting and exhausting. It can be so difficult to be patient when you can’t understand where a behaviour is coming from. This article aims to help answer that question by unpicking the skill that our children are learning to use: self regulation.

Self-regulation is our ability to settle our thoughts and emotions so that we are able to do what we need and want to do. It enables us to organise our behaviour, resisting our impulses and solve problems. Self-regulation is not something we are born able to do, but is something we learn over time, throughout childhood and into early adulthood. Parenting a child who is struggling with self-regulation can be a real challenge. These children might appear unresponsive, uninterested and may struggle to attend. They might be having tantrums, emotional outbursts, shouting, yelling and getting physical. They might do things when they’ve been told not to and generally not appear to listen. This kind of behaviour can look like willful defiance. And, of course, sometimes kids do chose to misbehave. But sometimes these behaviours are not a choice. At these times our children might be struggling with self-regulation.

As adults, unless we struggle with our own self-regulation, we may take this skill for granted. Most of use are required to self-regulate pretty regularly. Think of the time you had to go to work despite feeling upset about something in your personal life. In fact, just focussing on a task you don’t want to do at work requires self-regulation. Maybe you’ve had to deal with a difficult customer, colleague or neighbour. Staying calm when you’re feeling angry can be difficult, but as adults it’s something we often do in order to manage a situation effectively. Even the action of getting up in the morning when the alarm goes off and you want to go back to sleep. You are managing your thoughts and emotions in order to resist the impulse to sleep. Whilst this can come naturally to us, there are actually many factors at play that affect our ability to self-regulate. For children, these factors are crucial, in determining whether they succeed in learning and practicing this skill.

Factors affecting ability to self-regulate

Biology

Self regulation is a developmental process of brain development. Babies cannot self regulate, which is why we rock and soothe. As the baby grows into a toddler, they begin to develop their skills. An example of this is learning the word ‘no’. Toddlers and younger children will continue to develop their self-regulation skills by resisting pouring cereal all over the floor… sometimes. As they grow they develop their self-regulation abilities more, impacting sleep, emotional maturity, attention and impulse control. As self-regulation is a developmental process, developmental delay may have an impact on ability a child’s ability to self-regulate. Temperament is also a factor – some of us naturally have bigger expressions of our feelings than others.

Environment

As much as self-regulation is a process of brain development it is also a process of the environment. When we soothe and rock a newborn baby we are enabling them to regulate – this is co-regulation. Having these big feelings soothed by an adult is a foundational step in learning to self-regulate. As the child grows, ideally they are supported by parents to develop more independence in self-regulation. This will include comfort and positive interaction, structure and clear boundaries and significant adults around them modelling self-regulation. Children who experience trauma may experience difficulties in developing their own self-regulation.

Sensory

Sensory processing difficulties can have a direct impact on self-regulation. Children that find sensory input too strong can feel overwhelmed more easily than others. This can be anxiety-provoking and can create big emotions, that can be hard to manage. Children that struggle to pick up on sensory input may struggle to maintain an alert state, which is needed to self-regulate.

Another aspect of sensory processing that can directing affect self-regulation is interoception. Interoception involves recognising body sensations, as well as connecting body sensations to emotions. Body sensations include cues for hunger, toileting or pain but can also include signs in our body of anxiety, sadness, anger and other emotions. Interoception is intrinsic to self-regulation.

Mental

Self-regulation involves a number of different cognitive processes, including sustained attention, the ability to shift focus, the ability to consider what is being asked and judge your own response. Some children will struggle with these skills. Children who have a diagnosis of ADHD for example might find that they struggle with attention and impulse control. These cognitive process that support self-regulation are still being developed into early adulthood.

Motivation

All of us need to be motivated in order to engage in self-regulation. If I’m not motivated to get fit then I’m unlikely to resist eating that chocolate cake. It’s my motivation to complete a course that enables me to get an assignment done. In the same way, children need to be motivated. Motivation for children might come from incentives or rewards, but also often comes from the activity itself. If the activity offers just the right level of challenge for that child, not too hard, not too easy, this will be motivating. If the activity is meaningful to the child this will be motivating. Adults can also help with motivation by providing empathy, support, encouragement and facilitating a ‘safe’ space. If a child perceives a situation to be threatening then motivation to engage will be low.

Another factor linked to motivation is the child’s perception of their own ability. If a child has struggled with self-regulation previously they may internalise this as something they ‘can’t do’. When self-regulation feels out of control it’s easy to give up on the effort needed to develop this skill.

Is it bad behaviour or lack of skill?

So self-regulation is not always as simple as it seems. There are a lot of factors in the mix. Because of this it’s really important to consider whether a child is misbehaving or is struggling with this skill. If a child does not yet have the ability to self-regulate, punishing them for their behaviour is unlikely to resolve the problem, and may, in fact, make it worse. Instead these children may need more time, and more support to develop their competency in this skill.

If you have concerns about your child in relation to self regulation, you may wish to seek professional support. We can help at Imagine Therapy so do get in touch or visit our website for more information.

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