What is Self-Regulation?

It is the capacity to which a child can manage their responses, both behaviorally and emotionally, to changes in their environment or within situations[1]. In practical terms, it is the way your child copes with changes in their schedule or environment, their ability to modulate their emotions after an exciting or upsetting event, control impulses, handle frustration and attend to people or activities.   Children are not born with the ability to regulate themselves and therefore depend on a supportive nurturing environment to foster the skills required for effective self-regulation.  


Infants (0 – 12 months)

Infants are not yet able to regulate their own behavioural and emotional responses to stressors. They depend on their caregivers to identify stressors and remove them from their environment. It is therefore essential for parents to learn to read their children’s cues which suggest that the child is in a state of dysregulation or in a state leading up to dysregulation. These may include irritability, avoiding eye contact, restlessness, or sensitivity to sensory stimulation. Caregivers may then respond to the specific cue with one of the following actions:  


  • Taking away over-stimulating sensory sources. (turn down the sound, remove unwanted textures, allow the child to avert gaze from excessive visual stimulation or reduce movement)
  • Address child in an even and soothing tone of voice.
  • Provide the child with deep pressure such as swaddling or cuddling.
  • Provide the child with the relief of basic needs: hunger, dirty diaper, sleepy etc.


When the caregivers are unable to immediately assist to co-regulate a distressed infant, they often revert to self-soothing behaviours. These include thumb or pacifier sucking, swaying, repetitive limb movements or cuddling a soft toy or blanket. These are completely normal behaviours in infants and suggest that the child is attempting some sort of problem-solving to regulate their emotional state.  


Toddlers (12 – 36 months)

Toddlers can participate more actively in their self-regulation than infants. They however still depend on guidance from their caregivers to ensure appropriate behavioural and emotional responses to stressors. A study conducted on young children in orphanages in Romania suggested that the sensitive period for fostering emotional regulation in children is before the age of two years[2]. It is therefore critical that they receive the building blocks they require at this age for successful self-regulation as older children. The following activities may be implemented to ensure children develop optimal self-regulation skills:  


  • Anticipation: inform them that actions will occur ahead of time. For example, “Mommy will give you a snack just after I finish washing the dishes.” Anticipation can also be created ahead of the start of an activity by counting from 1 to 3 to give the child the opportunity to wait for those few seconds before starting an activity. This also aids with fostering impulse control in younger children.
  • A set routine helps to prepare a child for an upcoming activity that may cause distress. For example, your child knows that whenever we are finished eating in the morning, we brush our teeth.
  • Modelling appropriate responses to certain changes or events helps your child to develop a better understanding of how to manage these stressors by themselves. For instance, if they see you react to conflict in a certain way, they are more likely to handle these situations in ways that they have previously been exposed to.


Self-regulation continues to develop after 36 months of age well into adolescence. We should, therefore, aim to provide our children with the resources they require to be able to deal with whatever situations they should face within various settings.   Should you have concerns regarding your child’s self-regulation abilities, you can consult with your local Occupational or Play therapist.  



[1] Child Mind Institute. How can we help kids with self-regulation? https://childmind.org/article/can-help-kids-self-regulation/

[2] McLaughlin KA, Sheridan MA, Tibu F, Fox NA, Zeanah CH, Nelson CA III. Causal effects of the early caregiving environment on development of stress response systems in children. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. April 2015:5637-5642. doi:10.1073/pnas.1423363112