Self-regulation for infants and toddlers

How can you support young children in learning skills for self-regulation?


Self-regulation is the ability to control one’s behavior, including emotions, thoughts, actions and attention. Self-regulation is really the ability to control impulses—from not hitting your brother when he takes your toy to not buying that expensive TV until you know you have enough money to pay your rent.

Infants and young children cannot regulate their emotions on their own, they need loving adults in their lives to help them immediately regulate their emotions and behaviors and learn skills to do so independently. With practice and support, young children can learn skills that will help them self-regulate.

Michigan State University Extension suggests the following tips to help your young child learn and practice skills for self-regulation.

Be responsive. Think of it like a game of catch. When you throw the ball to your friend and your friend doesn’t do anything, it’s not a very fun game. But when your friend catches the ball and then throws it back, they are being responsive. You can practice being responsive by doing the same thing with your infant. Pay attention to their needs and their cues, and respond. For example, if the room is too loud, take your child to another room; lights are too bright, turn them down.

Be patient. Self-regulation is an advanced skill and it takes a long time to develop. Children need lots of practice and grace as they try to master this important skill. Give them opportunities to practice self-regulation and be understanding when they struggle. Young children can’t regulate themselves alone, they need the adults around them to help them navigate strong emotions.

Talk about emotions. Give your child a wide emotional vocabulary by talking about emotions. Use emotion words like angry, sad, frustrated, scared or worried to label how your child is feeling. The first step to being able to regulate behaviors is to understand our emotions.

Sooth and help them self-sooth. Help children regulate their emotions by being a calm, supportive and responsive presence. Give them comfort through loving words and gestures, snuggles and comfort items like a stuffed animal, blanket or pacifier.

Keep a routine. When children know what to expect, it’s easier for them to practice regulating their behaviors. For example, a daily routine in which the child transitions from one activity to the other in the same order each day will help a toddler be able to stop playing with their toys because they understand that it’s bed time.

For more articles on child development, academic success, parenting and life skill development, please visit the Michigan State University Extension website.

To learn about the positive impact children and families experience due to MSU Extension programs, read our 2017 impact report. Additional impact reports, highlighting even more ways Michigan 4-H and MSU Extension positively impacted individuals and communities in 2017, can be downloaded from the Michigan 4-H website.

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