Trouble With Self-Regulation: What You Need to Know

By Amanda Morin
Email Email
Chat's logo Chat's logo

At a Glance

  • Self-regulation allows kids to manage their emotions, behavior and body movement when faced with tough situations.

  • Self-regulation isn’t the same thing as self-control.

  • Kids with ADHD and sensory processing issues often struggle with self-regulation.

Does your child often act impulsively in an emotional situation, but after the fact is able to tell you what she should have done instead? Does she get overexcited and have a hard time winding down? Have you ever wondered why she doesn’t just tell you she’s overwhelmed before she has a meltdown?

All of those things require the ability to self-regulate. Kids rely on self-regulation skills in school and in everyday life. But kids with executive functioning challenges, like kids with ADHD, and kids with sensory processing issues often struggle with it.

Here’s what you need to know about trouble with self-regulation.

What Is 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. If a 12-year-old regularly has tantrums, he 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 she’s able to manage her emotions and behavior in appropriate ways.

To maintain that level of control, she needs to keep track of changes in her situation or environment. She needs to assess how she’s feeling and reacting, compared to her set point. And she has to know what adjustments to make in order to get back to that point.

It all has to do with how she processes information and emotion, and what she’s able to do with them.

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.

Consider this example. Before you go to the store with your child, she counts her money and realizes she finally has enough to buy the hot toy all the kids want. When you get 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 you have 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 you get to the store, the toy that your child has 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, your child 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 at a later time.

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 her 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.

  1. 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 she may have to make adjustments to her plan. Talking those things through ahead of time can help. So can teaching your child to tell you when the input is too much.

  2. Impulse control: For the child with ADHD, she may know there are other solutions, but it’s hard to restrain the impulse to get loudly upset. You can help your child feel more in control of her emotions and reactions by helping her develop coping skills.

  3. 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.

Self-regulation skills develop gradually. So it’s important to know what developmental milestones are appropriate for your child. But you can also help by talking to her about her set point and teaching ways to cope with frustration. If your child has sensory issues, a sensory diet may be helpful in teaching her to self-regulate. And all kids can benefit from filling out a self-awareness worksheet.

Key Takeaways

  • Sensory overload and trouble with executive function can make it hard for kids to self-regulate.

  • Self-regulation skills develop gradually, and there are ways to help your child improve.

  • Working on self-awareness, impulse control and goal-setting can help your child learn to self-regulate.

About the Author

About the Author

Amanda Morin 

worked as a classroom teacher and as an early intervention specialist for 10 years. She is the author of The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education. Two of her children have learning differences.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Ellen Braaten, PhD 

is the director of LEAP and codirector of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, both at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Did you find this helpful?

Up Next

Stay Informed

Sign up for weekly emails containing helpful resources for you and your family.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Please wait...

By signing up, you acknowledge that you reside in the United States and are at least 13 years old, and agree that you've read the Terms and Conditions. Understood.org does not market to or offer services to individuals in the European Union.