Does your child often act impulsively in an emotional situation? Some kids do that a lot, but after the fact they’re able to say what they should have done instead. Some kids regularly get overexcited and have a hard time winding down. Parents and other caregivers may wonder why these children don’t just say that they’re overwhelmed before having a meltdown.
Here’s what you need to know about trouble with self-regulation.
It can be easy to confuse self-regulation with self-control. The two are related, but they’re not the same. Self-control is primarily a social skill. Kids use it to keep their behavior, emotions, and impulses in check.
Self-regulation is a different sort of skill. It allows kids to manage their emotions, behavior, and body movement when they’re faced with a situation that’s tough to handle. And it allows them to do that while still staying focused and paying attention.
That means kids know how to figure out that they need to calm themselves down when they get upset. They’re able to be flexible when expectations change, and they can resist giving in to frustrated outbursts. This skill develops over time. That’s why it’s fairly common to see a 4-year-old having a tantrum, but not a 12-year-old. A 12-year-old who regularly has tantrums likely has a problem with self-regulation.
How self-regulation works
You can think of self-regulation in terms of how a thermostat works. A thermostat is set to kick on or off to keep a room at a certain desired temperature — a “set point.” To do that, it needs to keep track of temperature changes, compare them to the set point, and “know” whether to heat or cool the room to get back to the desired temperature.
When it comes to self-regulation, your child also has a “set point.” It’s when your child is able to manage emotions and behavior in appropriate ways.
To maintain that level of control, kids need to keep track of changes in their situation or environment. They need to assess how they’re feeling and reacting, compared to their set point. And they have to know what adjustments to make in order to get back to that point.
Self-regulation and sensory processing issues
Kids 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. These are interoception, proprioception, and the vestibular sense.
The source of the problem is the body’s nervous system. The nervous system has trouble regulating itself. So when kids are in situations that cause sensory overload, they can’t self-regulate. Their emotions and behaviors go unchecked, even when they’re aware of the things that are overwhelming them.
Consider this example. Before going to the store, Natalie counts her money and realizes she finally has enough to buy the hot toy all the kids want. When she gets to the store, she’s already overexcited.
The display is overwhelming, however. So are the crowds to get to it, not to mention the noise. Suddenly, she’s having a sensory meltdown and has to leave the store without getting the toy.
Self-regulation, ADHD, and executive functioning issues
Trouble with executive function can also cause problems with self-regulation. Kids with ADHD have a hard time managing emotions, so they often overreact to things. They also lack impulse control. So they might say and do things that aren’t appropriate to the situation.
Kids with ADHD also often struggle with flexible thinking. That means they have trouble shifting gears from one situation to another and coming up with ways to approach it.
The end result is a lack of self-regulation. Kids overreact in the moment because they’re not able to stop, reflect on the situation, and come up with solutions. That can lead to tantrums. They might also have trouble handling tough emotions like grief, and may dwell on negative feelings or experiences.
Consider the same example of the toy. This time when Natalie gets to the store, the toy she’s been saving for is out of stock. The store has reordered it and it will arrive next week.
Despite knowing the toy will be there next week, Natalie has a meltdown because this is not the situation she expected. She’s so disappointed it’s not available now that she isn’t able to keep her emotions under control.
Once she calms down, she’s able to think more flexibly. She realizes there are other solutions. She can see that she still has the money and will be able to get the toy later.
Helping your child with self-regulation
No matter what’s behind your child’s trouble with self-regulation, there are ways you can help. The first step is helping your child recognize when the information coming in is a problem. That could be information coming in through the senses or through internal thoughts.
Here’s a breakdown of what self-regulation would require in the toy scenario.
Self-awareness: For a child with sensory issues, this means knowing that the crowded toy display may create emotional stress. For a child with ADHD, it means knowing it’s possible that plans may need to be adjusted. Talking those things through ahead of time can help. So can teaching your child to tell you when the input is too much.
Impulse control: Kids with ADHD may know there are other solutions, but it’s still hard to restrain the impulse to get loudly upset. Kids feel more in control of emotions and reactions when they have developed coping skills.
Goal-setting: In both cases, it was hard to keep in mind the goal of having the toy. Work on setting and meeting small goals in order to start being able to keep bigger goals in mind.