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How to Teach your child to Self-Regulate.

Updated: Aug 26, 2021

Over the last few months, we've seen some cute videos of parents trying the #patiencechallenge with their children. Kylie Jenner famously tested little Stormi's patience in this trending food challenge highlighted an essential life skill! Self-Regulation! In this challenge, the parent places a bowl of the child's favourite snack and says, "you can have three of them, but you have to wait for me to come back". The parent leaves the room for a minute, and when they come back, the child gets the snack.


This challenge sounds very familiar as it is similar to the marshmallow test. As it both delays gratification and trials, a child's ability to suppress an impulse to meet another goal, listen to the authority figure, and wait. This skill essentially is about the ability to control something– a behaviour, a thought, an impulse, movement, or a feeling. Self-regulation is a general term, but it also references emotional regulation (control of feels) and executive function, which is a fancy way of saying control in the brain.


Researchers have related the ability to delay gratification to a series of outcomes. For example, children you can wait for more extended periods are generally more friendly, perform better academically years later. There are also significant brain differences between children you can and cannot wait. In part, self-regulation does have genetic links but is also a very teachable skill. Controlling your impulses underscore many social and cognitive skills, which is why it is essential children master this skill. As parents, we want our children to form great relationships with their peers, learn constructively and be good at problem-solving.


We've rounded up some ways to teach your child how to self-regulate.




1. Help your child recognise the "why".


The first step in helping children recognise the need to control their impulses is to present them with situations where they can take action and understand why they have to act a certain way and the consequences if they don't. For example, you may ask, "Why don't we snatch toys away from our friends while our friends are playing with them? We want to get along with our friends, and if we grab the toy mid-play, it will upset them. Instead, we can take turns, or we can ask for the toy. This way, we don't annoy our friends.


Not all impulses are wrong; they must be regulated for the right time and place.



2. Regulation is complicated!


Self-regulation is tough for kids to learn. They will get frustrated. It is crucial as a parent that you acknowledge it. You can say things like, "I know it's difficult to wait, but you can read a book, or you can do a puzzle while waiting."

The strategy is to

  • acknowledge that it is hard

  • recognise their desire (impulse), and

  • most importantly, offer an approach to help them regulate

Some children are naturally strong-willed. These qualities will no doubt serve them well as they get older. However, self-regulating will also aid in developing Cognitive Hardiness, which helps children persevere through hard things and eventually overcome them.



3. Use Games!


Playing games is the easiest and best way to teach children how to self-regulate. Games present all kinds of challenges that are important for self-regulation. The basic definition is to control impulses to meet a higher goal (win the game!). AND it's fun! It doesn't feel like you are practising self-regulation at all!


It's not enough to tell or explain things to your child. They have to learn by doing and by practising. Any game that asks kids to control something is fostering self-regulation. Like a whispering game, slow down speed up, the freeze game/dance, Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes, Simon Says, Red Light Green Light, and similar. Playing board games or card games is another way that allows children a chance to practice things like taking turns, remembering rules, paying attention, shifting from one focus to another, and inhibiting impulses.


Helping your child develop these skills will stay with them their whole life. If you feel like it's taking them a lifetime for them to learn how to self-regulate. That's because it does! As an adult yourself, you too are still developing executive function. The organisation of the brain responsible for self-regulation occurs around the age of two-three this is why we have the "terrible twos". There is rapid development that occurs in the brain until the ages of five. The brain continues to mature between the ages of 5 to 7; the development continues at a slower pace until puberty. We see a second brain development spurt which means your child now has to develop a whole new set of regulation skills to be organised and learned in adolescence.

Researchers estimate that total development in the self-regulation of the brain is thought to be complete sometime in your mid-30s, and all these teachable moments would have added up over the years. There may be times when you feel like you don't see any progress — it develops slowly and gradually. It is one of those things where you'll see effects much later.


This is where it is essential to teach your child that it takes time for a brain to grow, and they will have to try again to master things they want to learn, games they want to play, and more.


If you would like to speak to a qualified Play therapist to learn how your child could benefit from play therapy, click here to schedule a complimentary consultation today or take our quiz!


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