Child Self Regulation

The ability to self-regulate is a core strengths that is an essential part of healthy emotional development. This article is written by Tammy Fontana adapted from the work by Dr. Bruce Perry, M.D. Ph.D. who is an internationally recognized authority on brain development and children in crisis. Dr. Perry leads the Child Trauma Academy, a pioneering center providing service, research and training in the area of child maltreatment (

Developing a Child’s Self-Regulation

When a child is a baby they are fully reliant on their mother to manage all of their needs both physical and emotional. A just-fed newborn, rocking in the arms of her loving parent, is warm, full, calm, and safe. Her needs are met-for now. But soon hungry, a dirty diaper, gas or being placed down will trigger a baby to feel distress and cry out for assistance from the primary caregiver, usually the mother to regulate the body or emotion. This is found of attachment and helping to regulate the child’s emotions and physical state that over time and with practice, the child will slowly learn to do more and more on his or her own.

What is Attachment

Attachment is a clinical term that has been taken root in popular culture but has not retain its technical meaning in the lay community. Attachment is often misunderstood to mean that a child must be worn or never experience distress to become attached. In fact, attachment is the capacity to form and maintain healthy emotional relationships and through this secure base attachment, a child can develop the capacity to manage stress and discomfort. Attachment is a actually a brain function that is stored in the cerebellum and completed by age 2 1/2 to 3 years of age. It takes thousands of positive need responding action by the parent to cement attachment. An attachment bond has unique properties. The capacity to create these special relationships begins in early childhood and is most closely related to emotional regulation between the primary caregiver and the child.

Unique Features of an Attachment Bond

  • Enduring form of a bond with the primary caregiver person (most often the mother)
  • Foundation for learning empathy and social skills
  • A securely attached child has the freedom to develop curiosity and will explore his/her world becaues they are attached
  • There is security and safety in context of this relationship and the child can focus on learning how to self-regulate.

Typically in a healthy securely attached child, the mother will sooth and comfort the baby and respond to the baby’s needs. Gradually as the child gets older, even as young as 6 months, the mother starts to pull back and now helps the child with emotional regulation and they do it together with breaks in helping the child learn to self-sooth on his or her own. Finally as the child continues to mature, the parent pulls back to allow the child to regulate his or her emotions on his or her own with at times the parenting providing assisting. We see examples of this throughout development of a child starting at 6 months all the through adolescents.

An example with a baby would be the introduction of solids. The baby experiences hunger but must wait for the mother to make the food. With toddlers they learn self-feeding or eating, brushing teeth, going potty and learning to dress which are just a few examples. Depending on the complexity of the situation, age of child and emotional development of the child, the parents will assist or allow child to figure it out for him or herself. A key developmental task for children is mastery, the ability to do accomplish something by one’s self. Parents facilitate mastery in helping children to do things independently, this skill is intimately tied with emotional regulation and positive self-concept.

However, when parents do not allow this natural development of child’s self-regulation to evolve and the parent continues to do all the work for the child, the child suffers as they get older because they are not able to cope at school or on their own when the parent is not around to do all the soothing and emotional regulation for the child. These children will struggle more in day care or school. So parents always want to be mindful of age appropriate encouragement to help child develop skills to regulate their emotions.

Responding to Stress

Not all stress is bad and in fact it is important part of a child’s development of self-regulation. Central to the process of healthy development of stress-response capability is that children learn to read their bodies’ signals. A child needs low level stressors to learn to adapt and manage these stresses and develop skills to respond appropriately. This happens as a parent age appropriately pulls back providing immediate solutions to a child’s needs.

The brain is continually sensing and responding to the needs of the body. Much of this regulation takes place automatically-beyond our awareness. But as we mature, including children, our brain requires that we actively participate in our own regulation. When the internal world needs food or water or the external world is overwhelming, or threatening, our body “tells” us. If we thirst, we seek water; when afraid, we prepare to fight or flee. In short, we “self-regulate.” We act in response to the sensations and feelings that arise from our brain’s alarm systems. When these systems develop normally, we are able to deal with complex and challenging situations with age-appropriate solutions.By adulthood, these should be thoughtful and creative. When a child’s capacity for self-regulation does not develop normally, he will be at risk for many problems-from persistent tantrums to impulsive behaviors to difficulty regulating sleep and diet.

Understanding Body Signals

Many of the sensations we feel when we are “out of regulation” are clear. One example is thirst. When body senses thirst a series of reaction happen in our body and are communicated to brains to help us take action. The body tends to use a common set of “alarm” sensations for many different kinds of potential threats, including the threat of being thirsty. The alarm response and the resulting feelings caused by frustration are very similar to those caused by fear. A fearful child may act sullen and “angry,” unaware that they are actually anxious about starting something new or being thirsty. A hungry child may act distracted, irritable, and noncompliant, again unaware that the internal distress they feel is hunger. We all have had times when we have mislabeled these feelings. Sleep deprivation, illness, physical exhaustion, and family distress are among the things that can activate the alarm response and result in a set of behaviors that are misunderstood by teachers and by the children themselves.

Sometimes, we just can’t get what we need right away. We must endure the discomfort related to exhaustion, hunger, thirst, or fear. Learning to tolerate this distress, to correctly label the uncomfortable sensations, and to develop appropriate, mature ways to respond to these signals is central to healthy development. (When you are hungry or tired, you really aren’t mad at someone-so you need not act mad. Just remember to eat something between lunch and a late dinner.)

How Self-Regulation Matures

The capacity for self-regulation matures as we grow. Healthy self-regulation is related to the capacity to tolerate the sensations of distress that accompany an unmet need and this facilitated by a parent providing age appropriate learning opportunities for the child. The parent needs to pull back assistance to allow the child to develop skills to manage sensations of distress. For example The first time the infant felt hunger, she felt discomfort, then distress and then she cried. An attuned adult responded. And after thousands of cycles of hunger, discomfort, distress, response, and satisfaction, the child has learned that this feeling of discomfort, even distress, will soon pass. An adult will come. As young children learn to read and respond appropriately to these inner cues, they become much more capable of tolerating the early signs of discomfort and distress that are related to stress, hunger, fatigue, and frustration.

When a child learns to tolerate some anxiety, he will be much less reactive and impulsive. This allows the child to feel more comfortable and act more “mature” when faced with the inevitable emotional, social, and cognitive challenges of development. With the capacity to put a moment between a feeling and an action, the child can take time to think, plan, and usually come up with an appropriate response to the current challenge. For example, if you want another turn, wait in line and learn to tolerate the frustration of not getting exactly what you want exactly when you want it.

When to Worry

Many children have difficulty with self-regulation and this is normal as they learn to become better at it and given lots of opportunities for practice. Their stress-response systems are poorly organized and hyper-reactive in young children. However a child with poor self-regulation can disrupt an entire classroom, playgroup or family systsem. They are often impulsive, hypersensitive to transitions, and tend to overreact to minor challenges or stressors. They may be inattentive or physically hyperactive. These children benefit from the structure, predictability, and enrichment that schools provide. Unfortunately this may not be enough. If these problems are extreme and persistent, or if the behaviors disrupt the class, the child should be referred for further evaluation.

Helping Children Self-Regulate

• Model self-control and self-regulation in your words and actions when you are frustrated with a classroom situation.

• Provide structure and predictability. Children with self-regulation problems are internally “unstructured.” The more freedom and flexibility they have, the more likely they are to demonstrate uncontrolled behaviors. • Anticipate transitions and announce changes in home schedules.

• Reward children with good self-regulation capabilities with freedom and flexibility that will offer them opportunities for spontaneous, creative play and learning.

• Try to identify the most “reactive” and impulsive children and keep them apart from each other. Pairing children who face these challenges can escalate the problem.

• Remember that impulsive and aggressive children can create an atmosphere of chaos and fear. Don’t be afraid to immediately re-direct inappropriate words and actions. Your actions will make the rest of the children feel safer.

• Seek help. Don’t be afraid to point out a child’s self-regulation problems with parents or other school personnel. Early identification and intervention can save the child and family years of failure and pain.

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