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Trouble with self-regulation: What you need to know

By Amanda Morin

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.

Dive deeper

Self-regulation and sensory processing

People with sensory processing issues have trouble handling information that comes in through one or more of their senses. That includes the five traditional senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch. It also includes three lesser-known senses: interoception , proprioception, and the vestibular sense .

The source of the problem is the body’s nervous system. It has trouble regulating itself when something around us overstimulates one or more of our senses. This is called sensory overload.

For kids with sensory issues, a  sensory diet  may be helpful in teaching them to self-regulate. And there are lots of other strategies kids and adults can try in everyday life.

When ADHD is the cause

Many people with ADHD have a hard time managing emotions and say things that aren’t appropriate to a situation. ADHD can also cause trouble with flexible thinking. That means it’s hard to shift gears from one situation to another and to find new ways to approach it.

The end result is a lack of self-regulation. People overreact in the moment because they’re not able to stop, reflect on the situation, and find solutions. They might also have trouble handling tough emotions and dwell on negative feelings or experiences.

Learn more about ADHD and trouble managing emotions .

Next steps

No matter what’s behind trouble with self-regulation, there are ways you can help. The first step is recognizing when the information coming in is a problem. That could be information coming in through the senses or through internal thoughts.

If you’re struggling with self-regulation, learn some mindfulness techniques to reduce stress .

Parents and caregivers: Explore ways to help kids self-regulate

Educators: Read about how behavior is communication .

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  • Coming soonGoogle Classroom