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  • Photo du rédacteurJudith Gleba-Kressmann

How Can We Help Kids With Self-Regulation?

Some kids need help learning to control their emotions, and resist impulsive behavior

If you’re a parent, chances are you’ve witnessed a tantrum or two in your day. We expect them in two-year-olds. But if your child reaches school age and meltdowns and outbursts are still frequent, it may be a sign that they have difficulty with emotional self-regulation. Simply put, self-regulation is the difference between a two-year-old and a five-year-old who is more able to control their emotions. Helping kids who haven’t developed self-regulation skills at the typical age is the goal of parent training programs. And many older children, even if they’re beyond tantrums, continue to struggle with impulsive and inappropriate behavior. What is self-regulation? Self-regulation is the ability to manage your emotions and behavior in accordance with the demands of the situation. It includes being able to resist highly emotional reactions to upsetting stimuli, to calm yourself down when you get upset, to adjust to a change in expectations, and to handle frustration without an outburst. It is a set of skills that enables children, as they mature, to direct their own behavior towards a goal, despite the unpredictability of the world and our own feelings.

What does emotional dysregulation look like? Problems with self-regulation manifest in different ways depending on the child, says Matthew Rouse, PhD, a clinical psychologist. “Some kids are instantaneous — they have a huge, strong reaction and there’s no lead-in or build-up,” he says. “They can’t inhibit that immediate behavior response.” For other kids, he notes, distress seems to build up and they can only take it for so long. Eventually it leads to some sort of behavioral outburst. “You can see them going down the wrong path but you don’t know how to stop it.” The key for both kinds of kids is to learn to handle those strong reactions and find ways to express their emotions that are more effective (and less disruptive) than having a meltdown. Why do some kids struggle with self-regulation? Dr. Rouse sees emotional control issues as a combination of temperament and learned behavior. “A child’s innate capacities for self-regulation are temperament and personality-based,” he explains. Some babies have trouble self-soothing, he adds, and get very distressed when you’re trying to bathe them or put on clothes. Those kids may be more likely to experience trouble with emotional self-regulation when they’re older. But the environment plays a role as well. When parents give in to tantrums or work overtime to soothe their children when they get upset and act out, kids have a hard time developing self-discipline. “In those situations, the child is basically looking to the parents to be external self-regulators,” Dr. Rouse says. “If that’s a pattern that happens again and again, and a child is able to ‘outsource’ self-regulation, then that’s something that might develop as a habit.” Children with ADHD or anxiety may find it particularly challenging to manage their emotions, and need more help to develop emotional regulation skills.


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