- Cynthia Yoo
Effective Strategies to Support Your Child with Self-Regulation Challenges
When children consistently fail to meet our expectations, it is tempting to label them as oppositional, defiant, manipulative, and/or attention seeking. But what if their misbehavior is not by choice? More often than not, children who consistently fail to meet our expectations lack the skills required to effectively manage themselves in order to meet our demands. They are not willfully choosing to defy us.
Self-regulation is the capacity to effectively manage and redirect our attention, thoughts, feelings, urges, and behavior. Children who can self-regulate know how to remain calm when overwhelmed, redirect their attention when distracted, effectively adapt to challenges without shutting down or freaking out, refrain from acting on their every impulse, and successfully meet our expectations. On the other hand, children who struggle to self-regulate appear erratic, energetic, unpredictable, demanding, stubborn, hyperactive, and difficult to manage. What we know is that no child chooses to fail. When children don't know how to handle their big feelings and urges, their emotional overwhelm will get the best of them despite their best intentions. They will fail to meet our expectations.
If your child struggles to self-regulate, they need your understanding, patience, and encouragement. They need your consistent support, structure, and feedback to help them learn the skills required to effectively manage themselves so that they can meet your demands, get positive feedback, and feel good about themselves. Here are some ideas to help guide you on what you could implement at home to support your child to develop self-regulation skills.
Set them up for success
If your child struggles with self-regulation, a good place to start would be to help them develop healthy daily habits to ensure that their basic needs are being met (e.g., rest, play, connection, movement, sleep, daylight, nutrition, and more).
Connect with them and let them know that you see their struggle and care. They need to know that you are on their side.
Be creative and do your best to engage your child's attention and interest through casual and light conversations, imagination, and experimentation. Children learn best through connection and play.
Increase your child’s emotional awareness
Talk openly about feelings at home. If it's too much for your child to talk about their own feelings, you can start by talking about how characters from their favorite shows or books may be feeling (e.g., how might they be feeling, what might have caused them to feel this way, what might they be feeling in their bodies, how are their feelings impacting their behavior?).
Normalize and validate ALL feelings. The goal is for your child to be able to notice and accept all feelings as they come and go. I recommend avoiding terms like “good” and “bad” feelings and instead using terms like “comfortable” and uncomfortable” feelings.
Teach your child to name and scale the intensity of their feelings. Zones of regulation is a great resource to support children's social-emotional learning. When your child can name their feelings and scale them (from 1/low to 5/high, for example), they get a clearer sense of what's happening inside their bodies. Creating a visual chart of emotions and a scale from 1 to 5 that you and your child can use at home can be very helpful.
Help your child tune into their bodies and explore what's going on. For example, your child may notice that anger feels like heat in their cheeks, an ache in their head, tension in their neck, or tingling in their arms. They may notice that their anger was triggered by something someone did and that it fuels an urge to punch or break something. There are no right or wrong answers. The idea is for you to support your child to get to know their feelings with compassion, validation, and support. When your child can understand and accept what's happening inside their bodies, they can know what they're working with as they learn how to manage it all.
Help your child monitor their feelings and tolerate distress
Check-in with your child regularly to help them learn how to be aware of and monitor their feelings, urges, and behavior.
Support them to notice and express their range of feelings. Journalling, drawing, and creative movement are also great ways for your child to practice expressing their feelings.
Explore with your child what they need in moments of dysregulation to restore a sense of calm. Reflect on their past successes with them and let them know that you believe in their capacity to do well.
Help your child notice that all feelings come and go over time. You could help them develop a phrase to use when they are struggling to remind themselves that they're doing good and that uncomfortable feelings don't last forever.
Practice regulation strategies together with your child
Be in the moment with them as you practice regulation strategies together to help them tolerate distress and recover from overwhelm. You may learn some effective strategies for yourself!
Don't wait until your child is upset to practice regulation strategies - start practicing in moments of calm so your child knows how to do them.
Don't expect that one strategy will always work. The idea behind resilience is to keep an open mind and be flexible to keep trying different strategies when things aren't working and persisting when things are tough.
Give these regulation strategies a try:
Slow and deep breathing. Check out this video for young kids: 4-7-8 breathing
Vocalization. Try grunting, sighing, and/or screeching with your child. Experiment with different rhythms, pitches, and volume to see what works for them.
Rhythmic and repetitive movement. This includes swaying, rocking, dancing, walking, jumping rope, trampoline jumping, running, yoga, and stretching. For some children, a long and tight hug from their parents can really help to settle their big feelings. You can try rocking them in your arms and repeating a phrase or song to help soothe them.
Express big feelings. Sometimes, a good laugh and/or a good cry helps to relieve pent up feelings. YouTube videos or movies can help. Sometimes, punching a pillow or screaming out loud helps. Experiment with your child and see what they need to let out.
Fidget tools. It could be helpful to invest in a range of fidget or sensory tools for your child to help regulate at home (and even in the classroom, if needed).
Ground in the moment using the 5 senses. You can try a strategy called 54321 grounding. Have your child notice 5 things they can see, 4 things they can touch, 3 things they can hear, 2 things they can smell, and 1 thing they can taste. The idea is to slow things down and attend to the moment. Afterward, see if your child notices any changes in their body from before they tried the strategy.
Visualization. Support your child to lean into imagination and create a picture in their mind that brings them comfort and/or relief. Help them enrich their visual by asking them to imagine they are in their calm place. Ask them questions around what they see, feel, hear, smell, and taste.
Drawing/coloring. Print some mandala coloring sheets or grab some paper and crayons. Let your child color or draw whatever comes to mind.
Muscle relaxation. Guide your child to tense and relax their muscles from their head down to their toes. Here is a script you can try.
Body scan meditation. This involves paying attention to their body in the moment. Here is a body scan article with a script you can try with your child.
Positive noticing, gratitude, kindness, and compassion. Help your child focus their attention on helpful thoughts that promote acceptance, connection, and regulation. When you role-model these for your child on a daily basis, it becomes a healthy habit for them to practice these values and easy for them to draw from when needed to help regulate.
Positive self-talk. Help your child come up with self-affirming statements that help them get through tough times. This can include: I have had this feeling before, I am not alone in my struggle, these feelings are normal, I know why I feel this way, I have strategies to try, all feelings come and go, everything will be ok.
Distraction. Sometimes, your child may just need a break and a good distraction from the moment to calm and regroup. Some children find that music, a craft, a book, a snack, a game, or a show can help them step away from it all and wind down. When your child is calm, it's helpful to revisit what happened with them to promote their awareness - explore their feelings, what triggered it, what it felt like in their bodies, what they needed, and what strategies helped.
Connect with others. Some children like to talk things out with their parents, a friend, a pet, or a stuffed animal. Other children feel better when they are able to help someone out or do a kind deed. Give your child options on how they can connect with others and see what works for them.
Create a regulation toolbox with your child
Make a checklist or a stack of cue cards that your child can use as a prompt when upset. These can include the strategies listed above and some creative ones of their very own.
Create a bag or box of regulation tools for your child to keep handy (e.g., fidget tools, beads and string, putty, pen and paper, gum, candy, a puzzle, photographs, notes with movement suggestions). Let them choose their container, decorate it, and put what they want into it. Switch up the contents to keep the strategies fresh and effective.
Stay in calm authority
If you struggle to regulate, practice developing your own skills as you support your child to develop theirs. Your state of calm or overwhelm will amplify their state - invite them to join you in calmness.
When your child is escalated, connect with them through their senses before you try to direct them with your words. When your child is upset, you talking at them will overwhelm them even more.
Share out loud the choices you are making to regulate when you are upset or excited.
Help your child reflect on their successes, what worked, what didn’t work, and troubleshoot for next time. Come up with a proactive plan once you recognize patterns around their dysregulation to offset predictable moments of overwhelm (e.g., schedule down-time after coming home from school, agree on a hand signal for them to easily communicate their level of upset to you and give them space to take a break, agree ahead of time on how they might handle their feelings and what they need from you to support them).
Focus on your child's effort and intentions. They don't always have full control over the outcome. Help them see that they are doing their best, have the capacity to learn and grow, and are doing good.
If your child struggles to regulate, know that they are having a hard time - not purposely out to give you a hard time (though it may feel like it sometimes). They need your understanding, patience, and support to help them develop self-regulation skills. As you continue to guide and encourage your child to regulate, they will become more aware of their feelings and body and more able to control and manage themselves to meet their environmental demands. As your child starts to do well, they will experience an increased sense of competence, confidence, and efficacy. These positive outcomes will lead them toward a greater sense of resilience so they can continue to persist through challenges, bounce back from adversity, and feel good about their capacity to handle tough situations.
- Written by Cynthia Yoo, Registered Psychologist -
Zones of Regulation - resource for promoting emotion regulation skills in children
Social Learning - resource for understanding how to support social learning in children
Childmind Institute - resource for mental health and learning disorders
Understood - resource for learning and attention issues
Calm - resource with meditations, stories, music, talks, and more
Headspace – app with guided and unguided meditations as well as animations for younger kids
Books/ card deck:
Self-Reg: How to Help Your Child (and You) Break the Stress Cycle and Successfully Engage with Life - by Stuart Shanker
Smart but Stuck: Emotions in Teens and Adults with ADHD - by Thomas Brown
Nowmaps: A Tween's Guide to Learning about Your Thoughts, Navigating Big Emotions, and Being a Confident Kid - by Daniel Siegel & Deena Margolin
The Zones of Regulation: Tools to Try Card Deck for Tweens & Teens - Leah Kuypers & Elizabeth Sautter