Self-regulation is an important life skill for all ages to master. It actually is not a single skill but a group of skills. The ability to plan ahead, make thoughtful decisions, persistently work towards a future goal, and moderate emotions and behavior are all included in this group of skills. That is not to say spontaneity does not have a place, because it does, it is just kept within the boundaries you set to keep from being diverted from reaching your goals.
Help your child understand the idea of self-regulation
The ultimate purpose of self-regulation is to govern our behavior in a way that leads to successfully completing our daily and long-term goals. Help your child relate to abstract concepts associated with self-regulation, like taking turns and delayed gratification, by using real world scenarios.
For example, help your preschooler practice taking turns at a playdate. After the playdate, ask him how he felt when his friend was happy because he got a turn and how he felt when it was finally his turn. Yes, he had to wait, but the goal was for everyone to enjoy the playdate, so explain how the delayed gratification was worth it.
Help your child plan how to handle challenges
To deal with situations requiring him to wait patiently, let him choose between a couple of alternate activities to keep him busy, such as reading a book, working on a coloring project, or playing a game with you. It is a good idea to find at least a couple that you don’t need to prepare ahead for, in case you have to wait unexpectedly.
When your child finds it a challenge to regulate his emotions, work with him to find a few strategies he can use to calm down. It can be spending a few minutes alone in his room to take a deep breath, taking a few minutes to write down his feelings or talking it over with you. Having strategies in place you know work for him empowers him to choose one and use it to self-regulate when he feels his emotions start to spiral out of control.
As your child grows, have his strategies grow with him. For example, you may find the strategy of setting a timer to help your child share his toys with a sibling can evolve into him discussing with his sibling how long his sibling’s turn will be and coming to an agreement, without your intervention.
Practice is the key to control
Staying focused on goals requires good decision-making and control over impulses. Practice these self-regulation skills often, and as your child’s skills grow, you will find yourself not having to constantly step in and remind him how to get back on track.
- Have fun practicing self-regulation and control by playing board games that involve taking turns and following rules.
- Provide your child with opportunities to practice making thoughtful decisions. Start with simple decisions, like choosing what to wear or planning what games to play at a playdate.
- Give your child practice knowing when it is OK to release control. Unstructured time for free play should be a part of his daily schedule, and he should not be so over-controlled that he feels anxious about breaking the ‘no sweets before dinner’ rule by eating cake at an afternoon birthday party.