What Is Self-Regulation?

Medically Reviewed by Mahammad Juber, MD on August 29, 2022
4 min read

What is self-regulation?

Self-regulation is a useful skill that helps individuals cope with certain emotional behaviors and physical movements during stressful situations. In addition, self-regulation helps individuals stay focused and attentive during times of stress. 

Self-regulation is a struggle for many people, children and adults alike. Many individuals tend to act out impulsively when emotions are running high. Once the impulsivity wears off, though, many are left feeling embarrassed and mulling over how they should have responded instead. 

Self-regulation is often confused with self-control. While they’re related and share many traits, though, self-control is more of a social skill, whereas self-regulation can be compared to a thermostat. 

A thermostat’s “goal” is to maintain a certain temperature throughout a specific room or home. Its job is to keep track of any changes in temperature and to understand when a room needs to be heated or cooled. Similar to a thermostat, we also have a point during which we need to maintain a certain level of control and regulate our emotions. 

This includes: 

  • Noticing and tracking changes in our environment
  • Understanding our feelings and reactions
  • Comparing our behavior to our self-determined level of acceptable control
  • Adjusting our behavior to return to that level of control

Self-regulation is not a quickly learned skill, and it is not present at birth. Instead, self-regulation is developed over time. Some individuals have trouble self-regulating because they are unable to find what helps them calm down in times of emotional stress. Some individuals also struggle with disruptions of their routine. Many of these disruptions can lead to frustrated outbursts. This is especially true for those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) due to issues they have with sensory processing. 

When Does Self-Regulation Begin?

Self-regulation begins in infancy and often stems from warm and responsive relationships with our peers. Children cultivate self-regulation after watching the people around them. We continue to cultivate it throughout adulthood. 

Self-regulation involves attention, self-control, organization, memory strategies, and planning. Whether you’re a child or an adult, learning to self-regulate is important. 

Self-Regulation Examples for Adults

When you are self-regulating, it’s important to practice certain skills:

  • Practice being a good role model. Practice what you preach, making environments that are trustworthy and safe and living with good values.
  • Be open to change. Dealing with change with a positive outlook can improve your ability to adapt to changing situations while remaining positive. 
  • Commit to self-discipline. Stay persistent in achieving your goals. Keep moving forward even if you don’t feel like it. 
  • Learn what your triggers are. This will help you become more self-aware and will help you figure out a good plan of action if you encounter your triggers. 
  • Work on taking a step back when your thoughts and feelings become negative. Analyze these negative feelings and thoughts and replace them with positivity. 
  • Keep your cool in tense situations. You can remove yourself from the situation until you’re able to deal with it with a calm mind. 
  • Think about the consequences. If you are compelled to act impulsively with bad behavior, pause and consider the consequences, especially if something like that has happened in the past. 
  • Work on your self-confidence. This can help improve your self-efficacy and can allow you to focus on your own abilities. 

Teaching Self-Regulation to Children

  • Clear a space free of distractions and encourage your child to take breaks there between periods of work. Praise them for good behavior and completing tasks. 
  • Divide tasks into smaller pieces and describe to your child what successful task completion looks like. Also, explain specific task requirements. 
  • Help children to plan out their decisions by identifying and evaluating both short-term and long-term consequences. 
  • Allow children to have control over specific areas, especially in regards to their own behavior. 

Self-Regulation Benefits

There are many benefits when it comes to self-regulation. These include:

  • Being able to regulate reactions based on negative emotions such as frustration, anger, and embarrassment 
  • Being able to calm down when something exciting or upsetting happens
  • Being able to focus on a task 
  • Being able to control impulses
  • The ability to behave in certain situations and get along with other people 

Self-regulation also helps children to: 

  • Sit, listen, and learn at school 
  • Control impulses and act in socially acceptable ways 
  • Take turns in games and conversations, express emotions in a proper way, and share toys, thus making friends 
  • Make proper decisions regarding behavior, learn how to behave in new scenarios, and become more independent 

Here are a few important tips for self-regulatory behavior: 

Avoid Triggers

Consider which situations create stress and lead to outbursts. Think about what type of environments these situations involve. Are there loud noises? Bright lights? Is there other sensory information that can cause panic? Maybe it’s most stressful when plans change or routines are disturbed. Understanding potential triggers can help avoid over-stimulation and can be a teaching moment to help your little one learn how to self-regulate. 

Decide on a Signal 

Having a signal, also known as a frustration signal, can be useful.  These signals often let us know that our children need a break to calm down. With a signal in place, children can let their parents, teachers, guardians, and other adults around them know that they need to step away.  

Say Something

If you realize that you or your child are becoming overwhelmed, it’s important that you speak up. It’s equally important that your child speaks up as well. Children often have impulses to become upset and get loud at times, feeling overwhelmed. Talking it out and figuring out ways to cope can help. 

Be Patient 

Self-regulation takes time to learn and even more time to master. It’s important that you don’t rush into things or expect too much of a child. Start with small goals and work up to bigger ones. Eventually, you and your child can build up more control of emotional states.