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A toddler girl is calming her baby brother down. Self regulation, tantrums, breathwork, kids emotions.

A Parent's Guide to Fostering Self-Regulation in Children

This article is written in collaboration with Courtney English, a pediatric occupational therapist who helps parents address their child's sensory needs. She offers valuable advice on emotional control, bedtime routines, and meeting sensory needs.

You've likely come across the term self-regulation. In our guide, we dive into its meaning and we'll show parents effective strategies to use with their children. Discover how self-regulation influences child development and brain growth. Plus, learn why it matters and explore 10 actionable ways to boost these vital skills in your child.

Self-regulation is the ability to manage your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in different situations. As anyone with a tantruming two year old can attest to, it’s very normal for young children to struggle with self-regulation. In fact, it’s a skill that needs to be learned and practiced. 

Depending on your childrens’ current age and development, you may be familiar with the opposite end of the regulation spectrum—dysregulation. When someone is unable to self-regulate and their nervous system is out of balance, they enter into a state known as dysregulation. This could happen when the nervous system has either too much or not enough sensory input from their environment. 

While dysregulation can look different from child to child, some signs you may notice are: 

  • Crying 
  • Yelling
  • Talking fast 
  • Baby talk 
  • Drooling 
  • Fast breathing and increased heart rate 
  • Difficulty following directions 
  • Uncontrollable laughing 
  • Impulsive or fast body movements 
  • Difficulty making decisions 

Self-Regulation and Brain Development

A baby is smiling and sitting down. Self regulation, tantrums, breathwork, kids emotions.

Self-regulation is directly impacted by nervous system functioning. When the nervous system senses a threat or is overwhelmed, it sends a signal to the body to take action (a response known as “fight or flight”) or shut down (known as “freeze”). Regardless, when the nervous system shifts from a calm state into a dysregulated state, the upstairs brain (reasoning, learning, high-level thinking/problem-solving) is OFFLINE. No messages are coming and none are going out, which is why it’s impossible to reason with a child in the midst of a tantrum. In this moment, all we can do is to co-regulate, meaning calm ourselves in hopes it will calm others. 

Why Is Self-Regulation Important?

A young boy is closing his eyes and balancing a book on his head. Self regulation, tantrums, breathwork, kids emotions.

Self-regulation is a critical skill for children to learn and will lead to greater success in school, relationships, and life. When thinking about your child’s ability to self-regulate, it may be helpful to consider the following factors, which are common contributors to dysregulation:

  • Environment: Have there been recent changes to your child’s routine? Is the activity or task that they’re attempting too demanding? Is there a lot of sensory information to take in from the environment? (i.e. is it crowded, loud, or overstimulating for the child?)
  • Emotional state: Is your child tired? Do they seem anxious? 
  • Physical state: Is your child hungry? Are they sick? How have they been sleeping? 
  • Timing: Is your child most often dysregulated after they wake up, before bed, or after school? How many demands were placed on them during their day? 
  • Sensory processing: Is your child getting enough regulating input, such as heavy work, movement, swinging, and tactile play with sensory bins throughout the day? 

How to Help Your Child Practice Self-Regulation

You’re probably asking yourself if there are techniques and strategies to encourage self-regulation. Overall, strategies to promote self-regulation in kids include supporting body regulation like being able to control one’s level of arousal to match the needs of the environment or task demand, emotional awareness, modeling by showing our children how we self-regulate during times of stress or imbalance, co-regulation, and regulation guidance by an adult to scaffold self-regulation skills for independence. 

Below you will have access to 10 practical strategies to help improve your child’s self-regulation habits.

Practical Strategies to Help Your Child's Self-Regulation Skills

A mom, dad and baby are doing shush poses with their fingers. Self regulation, tantrums, breathwork, kids emotions.

As a pediatric occupational therapist, here are 10 methods I use to help strengthen children’s self-regulation skills. These approaches can be applied to young children and preschoolers alike. There are also some useful tips for parents to apply upon themselves. Let’s get dive in!

As you’re practicing these techniques, one phrase I often use is, “I notice.” By bringing attention to what you notice, you’re helping your child make connections between what their body is doing and how they feel. 

For example, “I notice your body is moving fast. How do you want to move your body to help it feel calm?” OR “I notice your face is red and you’re sweating. If you feel overwhelmed, we can take a break or drink some water.” If your child doesn’t find your suggestions to meet their needs helpful at the moment, allow them to come up with their own solutions. 

Breathwork

Breathing, and how we use our breath, are HIGHLY connected to how we regulate our nervous system. Teaching children to inhale through their noses and then exhale longer out of their mouths will help them activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which shifts the mind and body back to a safer state. 

To practice breathwork, try yoga, rainbow breathing (move arms up in the air as you inhale, and bring arms down as you exhale), and blowing bubbles, feathers, or dandelions. 

Another fun way to practice breathwork is by making a bubble mountain. Here’s how:

What you’ll need:

  • Small container/bowl filled with water (or you can use milk, too)
  • Small drop of soap 
  • Straw

Now, breathe in through your nose, then out through your mouth into the straw to make a large bubble mountain. The longer the exhale, the better. 

Body Regulation (“Heavy Work”)

The tool known as “heavy work” is one of the most regulating sensory activities out there! Anytime your muscles, joints, or tendons receive input, you are activating what’s known as the proprioception system. This type of movement includes pulling, pushing, climbing, crawling, carrying, squeezing, and any activities where you bear weight. These can provide organizing, calming, and regulating input to the nervous system, which controls many of our actions, responses, and behaviors.

Some examples of heavy work include: 

  • Stacking books before bed
  • Taking stuffed animals on a magic carpet ride (pulling animals on a blanket)
  • Scooping and pouring water into a sink
  • Spraying a water bottle and wiping the table with a sponge
  • Crawling through a tunnel or over couch pillows
  • Moving and tossing couch pillows on/off the couch
  • Drinking a smoothie from a straw
  • Blowing a crumpled-up tissue, dandelions, or a feather
  • Carrying a weighted stuffed animal (or try placing the animal on your back while crawling to give the animal a ride)
  • Pulling apart and pushing together pop tube (a toy that you can pull apart and push together) 
  • Pop tube tug of war
  • Squeezing Play Doh
  • Tearing and crumpling paper (also good for fine motor skills)
  • Climbing up a slide
  • Hanging from monkey bars
  • Kicking a soccer ball
  • Rolling a ball across the floor (home bowling)

Exercise like yoga for kids can also help here. For example, Yoga with Music by Cali’s Books allows you to connect with your child while practicing yoga moves for heavy work.

Emotional Regulation 

Emotional regulation is the ability to effectively manage and respond to our emotions in a healthy and adaptive manner. It involves recognizing, understanding, and appropriately expressing emotions, as well as utilizing strategies to cope with and regulate intense feelings. How our nervous system processes and interprets sensations impacts our emotional regulation. 

The better we understand our nervous system, the more equipped we become to regulate our emotions effectively. For example, when we notice that we are dysregulated, we can implement regulating activities such as movement and breathwork to feel safe, calm, and connected. 

One of my favorite ways to help support emotional regulation involves identifying triggers and glimmers. It’s important to recognize and identify triggers that lead to emotional dysregulation. Awareness of these triggers can help your child realize when they need to take a break or do an activity that is regulating to them. Next, identify glimmers, which are things that make your child feel happy and bring them to a state of feeling calm and connected. The “triggers and glimmers” method is a concept developed by Stephen Porges who discovered the polyvagal theory to understand nervous system regulation better.

Co-Regulation 

As a parent or guardian, knowing your own triggers, glimmers, and regulation strategies can help you remain regulated when your child is upset. This helps your child imitate your nervous system state by feeling safe and connected. Co-regulation is where you offer the “just right” amount of support to your child when they are heading towards dysregulation or meltdown. 

Some children need touch while others prefer not to be touched, some need you to sit near them or further away, some need to talk, and some need no words. Every child is different. See what works best for you and your child.

Mommy I Love You, by Cali’s Books allows a mother and child to establish a safe connection, which helps to support co-regulation. In addition, reading together and exchanging laughs and smiles can be very regulating to the nervous system. 

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment, on purpose, and without judgment. Practicing mindfulness is very calming to a disrupted nervous system. Some mindfulness activities to try with your kids are yoga, coloring, unstructured sensory play, daily affirmation cards, and a “body scan,” which is when you move your attention throughout the body, noticing how it feels (then think of ways to give the body what it needs).

Try this mindful heartbeat exercise with your child:

  1. Jump up and down or dance to music for 1 minute (set a timer)
  2. Place your hand on your heart to feel how your heart is beating. Notice how you are breathing (Is it fast? Slow? Hard? Soft?)
  3. Next, lay down or rest for 1 minute
  4. Again, place a hand on your heart, checking in to see how your heartbeat and breathing has changed.

Calming Corner/Safe Space

Designate a “calming corner” or “safe space” in your home, which is a cozy, safe, sensory spot. Use a tent, or make an enclosed space, to eliminate overwhelming sensory input. Add a basket full of regulating toys, such as a weighted blanket, a visual calming bottle, lights, a breathing ball, bubbles, headphones, and musical books, like Cali’s Books Reggae. 

Collaboration/Flexibility 

Whenever possible, co-create your plans and activities with your children, giving them options throughout the day. 

One-on-One Time

Be sure to designate 1:1 time with your child for at least 15 minutes after a busy day to connect and establish safety. 

Reading the Twinkle Little Star book from Cali’s Books can be an easy and playful way to connect and spend one-on-one time with your child. An easy way to support connection during bedtime routines is to place your favorite Cali’s Books in a basket by your child’s bed at night to have something to look forward to reading together when they wake up. I like to call this “morning plan baskets.” 

Verbal Problem-Solving/Self-Reflection

Show your inner work to your children. As you problem-solve throughout the day, verbalize your thought process. For example, you might say, “I’m so sad I spilled my juice. I did not expect that to happen, but I can clean it up and pour a new glass. Accidents happen and that’s okay.” 

Be Sure to Keep Yourself Regulated

One of the best ways to support a dysregulated child is to be regulated as their caregiver. It helps to understand what triggers yourself to become dysregulated as a parent. The reasons can be different: such as too much sound after coming home from work, the house being messy, or forgetting to complete a task. So it helps to know what helps you feel calm: crunchy snack, deep breath, taking a break, using earbuds to reduce sound. A few ways to regulate yourself as an adult are: 

  • Dim the lights to decrease sensory input 
  • Drink cold water through a straw 
  • Chew gum 
  • Take a walk 
  • Practice yoga or do some simple stretches on the floor 
  • Move your body any way you can

Summary

While we are not all born knowing how to self-regulate, all humans can learn. Once you understand your own nervous system needs, you can better support your child’s nervous system for optimal regulation. Also, there are many trained medical professionals available to help if your child’s dysregulation impacts their daily function and development.

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Hi! I'm Cali, Founder of Cali's Books

Hi! I'm Cali, Founder of Cali's Books

“I’ve loved books since childhood and wanted to transmit this enthusiasm to my children”

I'm a mom of two young children who trained as an engineer and worked in investment banking and at Disney. A French of Caribbean origin (Martinique to be precise!), I grew up in Paris. Los Angeles is now the place I call home!

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