Trouble with self-regulation: What to know

By Amanda Morin

Expert reviewed by Ellen Braaten, PhD

Self-regulation is a skill that allows people to manage their emotions, behavior, and body movement when they’re faced with a tough situation. It also allows them to do that while staying focused and paying attention.

Lots of kids and adults struggle with self-regulation. They act impulsively in an emotional situation. And after the fact, they can say what they should have done instead.

It’s easy to confuse self-regulation with self-control. They’re related, but they’re not the same. Self-control is mainly a social skill.

Self-regulation, on the other hand, is like a thermostat. A thermostat kicks on or off to keep a room at a certain temperature, or a “set point.” It tracks temperature changes, compares them to the set point, and “knows” whether to heat or cool the room.

We all have a self-regulation set point. To maintain that level of control, we need to:

  • Keep track of changes in our environment
  • Assess how we’re feeling and reacting
  • Compare it to our set point
  • Adjust to get back to that point

Self-regulation is a skill that develops over time. People who struggle with it have trouble figuring out what will help them calm down when they get upset. They have a hard time being flexible when things change and might react with frustrated outbursts. It all has to do with how people process information that comes in from their senses.

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About the author

About the author

Amanda Morin is the author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education” and the former director of thought leadership at Understood. As an expert and writer, she helped build Understood from its earliest days. 

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Ellen Braaten, PhD is a child psychologist, professor, and founding director of the Learning and Emotional Assessment Program (LEAP) at Massachusetts General Hospital.


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