You have probably noticed that some children are sensitive to the slightest noise, while others require a very loud noise to respond. Some children can do errands with you all day and not get cranky, while others get fussy and need some quiet time after a short outing. If you want your child to thrive later in life, she must be able to manage her own energy states, emotions, behavior, and attention in ways that are socially acceptable and help her achieve her goals. This ability is known as “self-regulation.” With your help, your child can learn to self-regulate without even thinking about it. This is one of the greatest gifts a parent can offer.
“Self-regulation” means managing the stressors in our lives to achieve a calm balance. Researchers have broken down stressors into five categories: biological, emotional, cognitive, social, and moral. These categories are parts of an integrated system that influence each other.
A stressor can be any stimulus that might cause discomfort for your child. It may overstimulate her developing neurological system, and lead to energy depletion if she can’t come to an internal balance. Stressors can include:
• Sensitivity to light
• Positive or negative emotions
• Certain social situations
Unaddressed stressors can lead to a chronic state of energy depletion, because your child has to exert extra energy to ignore the stressors and balance her arousal (comfort/discomfort) states. Your child’s strength is finite. The more energy she needs to deal with the stressor, the less energy will be left for learning, paying attention, and impulse control.
All activities demand energy. The amount of energy required will vary according to the activity, the situation, and your child. Two children might have to expend very different amounts of energy to perform the same task.
The key to self-regulation is to help your child identify the stressors inherent in various situations and tasks, so that she can develop strategies to regulate her arousal (comfort/discomfort) states and responses. For example, nine-month-old Eddie always cries at bath time. His mother tries to make it fun by giving him toys, but it makes no difference. She begins to realize that Eddie might be sensitive to fluctuating temperature changes because he seems to get cold easily. She decides to change Eddie’s bath routine so he doesn’t get cold. She starts by turning the heater on in the bathroom and putting the warm water in the tub. She then undresses Eddie when the warm water is ready, and puts him in the tub. This change helps regulate Eddie’s body temperature. This means that Eddie is no longer expending energy on the discomfort of being cold; thus, he can be calm and enjoy the bath.
Self-regulation is not the same as self-control. Self-control helps your child be compliant with the wishes of others; self- regulation is an internal mechanism for soothing herself. Your child needs to develop self-regulation as a building block for self-control (what researchers now call effortful control). Self-control is about inhibiting impulses. Self-regulation is about identifying and being aware of the causes of distress, and reducing the intensity of impulses. It is based on minimizing or eliminating stressors to create a sense of calm and replenish energy.