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Teaching self regulation

By Brandy Browne

Self regulation. Emotionally regulated children. These are common buzz words one hears in child development circles these days. But what does that even mean, and why is self regulation a skill children must develop? Jackson (2020) articulates that self regulation is “the ability to monitor and change your arousal state or energy level” (retrieved from As an adult, I can usually tell a change in my mental state before I erupt. I might feel tense, edgy, or ready to explode. At that point, the wise decision is usually to excuse myself to another room or go take a walk and give myself time to allow my energy to return to a calmer state. Self regulation skills set the path for individuals to be able to regulate their emotions, whereas emotional regulation, Lynn Jackson, writer for Connected Families  (2020) affirms, is the ability to “understand, evaluate, and even problem solve what you were feeling” (retrieved from For example, I might notice that I am feeling very irritable. If I had the ability to regulate my emotions, I would  say, “This is not an appropriate way to react to this situation. I am really tired because I did not sleep well last night. I will hold off on reacting and having any discussions that could become confrontational until I am well rested.” 

So, why do our children need to know how to self regulate? Well, it definitely helps reduce the amount of meltdowns that they might be having. The ability to self regulate assists in the development of the frontal lobe, the portion of the brain responsible for logical thinking and reasoning. In his research on brain development in children, child psychiatrist and author Dr. Daniel Siegal (2011), refers to the parts of the brain as the “upstairs” brain and the “downstairs” brain. When a child is in the downstairs brain, he or she is unable to problem solve or think rationally. Moving to the upstairs brain is triggered by utilizing coping skills and moving the body away from it’s inflammatory fight or flight response.  The brain typically develops from the bottom up, so it is not reasonable to expect a toddler to be able to regulate their emotions. That is a skill acquired with age and maturation. The ability to self regulate is important for developing emotional intelligence, which will help your child in developing relationships throughout his or her lifespan. 

Jackson (2020) outlines ways to assist our children in self regulating in her article, 50 Self regulation activities to empower your child to calm.  Become a partner in growing your child’s ability to regulate. By engaging in calming activities together (such as a long hug or reading a book together), the child absorbs some of your calm. Other methods of regulating with your child include blowing bubbles, enjoying a snack together, or taking deep breaths. My own child loves her weighted blanket and sensory experiences, such as painting, playing with slime or play doh, or squeezing a squishy ball. My son loves jumping on the trampoline or climbing activities to blow off steam. My youngest child often engages in art activities to self regulate. Music can also be a useful tool in altering energy levels throughout the day. 

What if our child is in his or her “downstairs” brain and simply cannot regulate? Siegel (2011) advises that “the key is that when your child is drowning in a right-brain emotional flood, you’ll do yourself (and your child) a big favor if you connect before you redirect” (p 514). This is key in order to be able to handle your child’s inability to regulate in such a way that you keep your own regulation in check. An unregulated adult can never successfully regulate a child.  Make sure to take the time after the outburst is over to help your child process his or her emotions effectively. If an issue is not processed and worked through, it is likely to recur. Finally, remember that learning to regulate effectively is a long, slow process, dependent upon much practice developing the skill and the maturation that comes naturally with age and development. Celebrate achievements as you see them!


Jackson, L. (2020). 50 self regulation activities to empower your child to calm. Retrieved from

Siegel, D. & Payne, T. (2011). The whole brain child: Revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind. Random House. 

Photo by David Garrison on

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