It is the end of a hot summer day, and your 2-year-old is having a meltdown because you told her she can’t have ice cream for dinner. Does this sound familiar? This is in part due to her feeling every emotion in a more intense way and not yet knowing how to control her reaction.
Self-regulation is an early life marker that is imperative for later life successes. It is the process your child’s brain goes through for him/her to be able to control their energy level, emotions, and behaviors according to the demands within a given situation. It is having the skill to resist highly emotional reactions to upsetting environmental stimuli, calming down when upset, being flexible to change, and handling frustration without an outburst.
Self-regulation is a key foundational skill in early child development. Your child needs your help in the beginning to help with immediate regulation of their emotions. By providing strategies and opportunities to practice how to remain calm and collected in stressful situations, your child can develop strong habits that they carry with them into the future.
Self-Regulation can be broken down into the following 3 phases:
Self-regulation develops in the following manner:
Self-regulation skills are linked to how well your child can manage everyday tasks. With these skills, your child will be able to manage unpredictable life events more easily. Here are some simple, fun, and easy ways to support your child’s self-regulation skills on a day-to-day basis:
Tantrums can occur when your child is overtired or hungry. Make sure your child is getting enough rest and nutrition throughout the day. Sometimes, an afternoon tantrum calls for a quick afternoon snack!
Change the scene and bring your child out into the fresh air. Providing opportunities for free, outdoor play lets the energy out and fills the body with happy feelings! (Find outdoor play inspiration in the NAPA blog: Water Play Activities and Outdoor Gross Motor Activities)
Help your child learn how to breathe deeply by blowing bubbles. Plus, who doesn’t love bubbles? The sensory rich experience will also create a calming effect for your child during a tough time.
Check in with your child periodically about how they are feeling. Give your child a wide emotional vocabulary by talking and reading about it. Identify feelings and use emotion words such as anger, sadness, frustration, worried. Understanding our emotions is the first step in being able to self-regulate.
Pay attention to your child’s unique needs and cues. If you are in a noisy environment, try moving to a quieter space.
A useful space to have somewhere in your home, that is peaceful with familiar items, where your toddler can go to get space if they need it.
Picture schedules are a wonderful way to allow for increased organization in your child’s brain, to better understand what is coming next. It also gives them something to look forward to!
Help with transition as it will warn your child when the activity ends.
Nicole Mayo is a pediatric occupational therapist at the NAPA Center Boston. She loves providing the necessary tools and strategies to help each child reach their fullest potential. Outside of the clinic, Nicole enjoys spending time with her family and exploring the outdoors.