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Self Regulation Is Not Taught, It's Experienced

Self-regulation has become somewhat of a buzz word, often used synonymously with calm or well-behaved. In fact, as a new mom, I’ve heard this term often utilized for babies too. Even from an early age, parents are told that their children should be able to soothe themselves. We don’t expect children to run before they crawl, or communicate in sentences before they babble, so why do we expect them to calm themselves down before they have the skills to do so? 

Contrary to popular belief, self-regulation is not a skill that you learn by talking about it. Sure, that can help with emotional intelligence, but true self-regulation is developed through many experiences of scaffolded support, or co-regulation. So how can we tune in to our child's needs to support their ability to regulate?

Facial Expression

You know the way you look at a sleeping baby, and your heart swells up? Yes, that’s the look. Our amygdala, or emotional control center in the brain, is on alert to respond to facial expressions. How we look when we set boundaries can communicate far more than the boundaries themselves. Even when you need to set a firm boundary, using a warm expression communicates to your child that they are safe and loved.

Tone of Voice

How you convey the message you are giving is often “felt” and “understood” before words are processed.


Having clear expectations and routines is so grounding, even for adults. Our job as adults is to create boundaries, but they are only effective when followed through on. As a child, clear boundaries actually help to establish and perpetuate the experience of safety.


If there was one strategy that could fit for most challenges with children, it would be consistency. When setting boundaries, be sure to have consistent expectations around those boundaries. Predictability not only supports the experience of safety and security, but also supports children to follow those boundaries you set. Do you notice your child having a hard time during certain times of day? Consider implementing a routine before that time, such as movement play or quiet activities, to proactively support regulation.


Has anyone ever told you to “calm down” when you were already seeing red? Did it fast track you to level up your emotional response? Rather than using words to coach regulation, I encourage you to model it. Rather than saying take a breath, begin to model deep breaths. It feels silly at first, but it really makes a difference! (& again, your child’s brain is wired for connection–meaning they are likely to imitate you just from observing you.)

Verbal Acknowledgement

When I started working with kids, I quickly realized this conditioned response to a child’s upset to be “you’re ok.” While well intentioned, this doesn’t really honor or empathize with the emotion. A child’s upset is a very indicator that they are not ok, so how can we empathize with them instead? You might use phrases like, “gosh, that was hard” or “ouch, that hurt.” This goes for pre-teens and teens as well!

There are so many things that we have to remember as a parent to a child of any age. While these strategies can be helpful and effective, we must also give ourselves grace as parents when we inevitably use other strategies or “lose our cool.” If you have a child who is struggling with regulation and you might need a boost to support them, feel free to reach out to our talented team of OT’s. We’re here to help!


  1. Children’s social and emotional development starts with co-regulation. NICHQ. (2019, April 24).

  2. Purvis KB, Cross DR, Wendy Lyons Sunshine. The Connected Child: Bring Hope and Healing to Your Adoptive Family. McGraw Hill Professional; 2007.


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