1. School Age
  2. Behaviour
  3. Understanding behaviour

Self-regulation in young children

1-6 years

Self-regulation is the ability to understand and manage your behaviour and your reactions to feelings and the things happening around you. Children start developing this ability from around 12 months. With your help they get better at it as they grow and learn. 

What is self-regulation?

Self-regulation is the ability to understand and manage your behaviour and your reactions to feelings and the things happening around you.

It includes being able to:

  • regulate reactions to emotions like frustration or excitement
  • calm down after something exciting or upsetting
  • focus on a task
  • refocus attention on a new task
  • control impulses
  • learn behaviour that helps you get along with other people.

Why self-regulation is important

As your child grows, self-regulation will help her:

  • learn at school – for example, because self-regulation gives her the ability to sit still and listen in the classroom
  • behave in socially acceptable ways – for example, because self-regulation gives her the ability to control impulses and not make loud comments around people who look different from her
  • make friendships – for example, because self-regulation gives her the ability to take turns in games, share toys and express emotions like joy and anger in appropriate ways
  • become more independent – because self-regulation gives her the ability to make good decisions about her behaviour and learn how to behave in new situations with less guidance from you
  • manage stress – because self-regulation helps her learn that she can cope with strong feelings and gives her the ability to calm herself down after getting angry.

How self-regulation develops

Babies aren’t born with the ability to control their own reactions and behaviour. Self-regulation develops most in the toddler and preschool years, but it also keeps developing right into adulthood.

Babies
Your baby is too young to learn self-regulation, but with your help he’ll start developing ways of handling his emotions.

When you respond quickly to your baby when she’s upset, and cuddle and comfort her, she calms down. This experience helps your baby learn about how to soothe herself – for example, she might suck her thumb to comfort herself. Being able to self-soothe is the first step towards learning self-regulation.

Toddlers
As your baby becomes a toddler he’ll start to develop some basic self-regulation skills. For example, he’ll learn how long he usually needs to wait for things like food or his turn to play.

From around two years your child will probably be able to follow simple instructions or rules like ‘Please put your hat on’ and ‘Don’t hit’.

And as she develops, your child will start to follow simple rules even when you aren’t there. But at this age you can still expect that she might break rules in tricky situations. For example, if another child has a toy your child really wants, she might snatch rather than wait for her turn.

Preschoolers
From around 3-4 years, your child will start to know what you expect of his behaviour. He’ll probably be able to control his behaviour with some supervision and help from you. For example, he might try to speak in a soft voice if you’re at the movies.

School-age children
By school age your child is likely to be better at planning – that is, imagining the consequences of her behaviour and deciding how to respond. For example, your child might start being able to disagree with other people without having an argument.

At this age, your child is learning to see ‘both sides’ of a situation. When he can imagine how somebody else sees and feels about a situation, he’s more likely to control how he expresses his own wants and needs.

Every child is different and some children find self-regulation easier than others. Even older children and teenagers sometimes struggle with self-regulation. Your child’s ability to self-regulate will depend on the strength and intensity of her emotions. Children who typically feel things strongly and intensely find it harder to self-regulate. It isn’t as hard for children who are more easygoing. But if you feel that something isn’t quite right, see your child and family health nurse or GP.

Helping your child learn self-regulation

Here are some tips for helping your child learn self-regulation:

  • Try to model self-regulation for your child – for example, show your child how you can do a frustrating task without getting upset. You could say something like, ‘Wow that was hard. I’m glad I didn’t get angry because I mightn’t have been able to do it’.
  • Talk about emotions with your child – for example, ‘Did you throw your toy because you were frustrated that it wasn’t working? What else could you have done?’. When your child struggles with a difficult feeling, encourage him to name the feeling and what caused it. Wait until the emotion has passed if that’s easier.
  • Help your child find appropriate ways to react to difficult emotions – for example, teach her to put her hands in her pockets when she wants to touch, snatch or strike out. Say things like ‘Let’s relax’ and ‘I can help you if you like’.
  • Have clear rules that help your child understand what behaviour you expect – for example, ‘Use your words to show your feelings’.
  • Talk with your child about the behaviour you expect – for example, ‘The shop we’re going to has lots of things that can break. It’s OK to look, but please don’t touch’. Give your child a gentle reminder as you enter the shop. For example, ‘Remember – just looking, OK?’
  • Praise your child when he shows self-control and follows the rules. Descriptive praise will tell him what he has done well. For example, ‘You were great at waiting for your turn’, or ‘I liked the way that you shared with Sam when he asked’.
Be patient with your child – it can be very hard for young children to follow rules when they have strong feelings. Matching your expectations to your child’s age and stage of development can also help.

Problems with self-regulation

From time to time, different things can affect your child’s ability to self-regulate. For example – tiredness, illness and changes to your child’s routine can all affect her ability to regulate her reactions and behaviour. Also, some children have great self-regulation at child care or school but find it hard at home. Other children struggle in busy, noisy places like shopping centres.

Although these problems with self-regulation are pretty normal, it’s a good idea to speak with a professional if you’re worried about your child’s behaviour or you’re having trouble managing his behaviour as he gets older. For example, you could talk to your GP, your child and family health nurse, or your child’s child care educator or teacher.

Consider seeking professional help if:

  • your child seems to have more tantrums or difficult behaviour than other children of the same age
  • your child is behaving in difficult or out-of-control ways more often as she gets older
  • your child’s behaviour is a danger to herself or others
  • your child is difficult to discipline and your strategies for managing her behaviour don’t seem to be working
  • your child is very withdrawn and has a lot of trouble interacting with others
  • your child doesn’t seem to have as many communication and social skills compared with other children of the same age.
If your child has challenging behaviour and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or a disability, talk with the professionals who work with him. They’ll be able to suggest ways to manage his behaviour and to help him learn self-regulation skills. 

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Last updated or reviewed
01-03-2017

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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