The Importance of Self-Regulation with Sarah MacLaughlin, LSW

The Importance of Self-Regulation

Excerpted and adapted from Raising Humans With Heart: Not a How-To Manual by Sarah MacLaughlin, LSW                                                                       

There are many things parents benefit from practicing, but perhaps none as important as self-regulation. Self-regulation is what happens when you catch yourself headed into your “downstairs” brain, and instead, maintain your ability to think. It means you’re able to weather a difficult situation that is rife with emotion and still maintain your equilibrium. It’s feeling an emotion fully, without letting it sweep you off your feet. It takes dedication and practice yet helps you stay calm in the face of triggering behavior from your child. It keeps you from losing your temper. And it can keep you from spanking your child, if you are inclined to do so.                                                                                    

Also, if you do lose it (your thinking brain, control of yourself, your equilibrium/temper), self-regulation is getting it back more quickly, and recovering without beating yourself up or heading down a road paved with guilt and shame. When adults can do this in front of children, it’s awesome modeling.                                                                                                             

Self-regulation is a complex process. I perceive myself as generally calm and patient, and maybe I am. But, when something sets me off, I feel justified in my anger. It always feels right when I am upset because they’re my feelings. I fall into blame and think, that person shouldn’t be so irritating. It’s not typical for me to ask myself, Why am I so irritable?                      

I define self-regulation as the ability to stay in charge of yourself when you have intense feelings. According to Stuart Shanker, author of the book, Self-Reg: How to Help Your Child (and You) Break the Stress Cycle and Successfully Engage with Life, it’s all about understanding stress and managing your tension and energy levels. Self-regulation is not the equivalent of will-based self-control.                                                                                                             

Let me say that again: I am not talking about self-control. That would involve increasing your effort and will, which in turn drains your energy and reduces your ability to self-regulate. That’s why I like to tell parents and teachers, “You can’t fake calm!” Self-regulation is the thing that helps us not freak out or see a child’s whining as a reflection of us. It keeps us calm in the face of a toddler’s tantrum, an aggressive kindergartner, or a rebellious teenager.                          

Self-regulation allows you to listen to your child’s upset feelings, support their motivation, and guide their behavior. It affects your ability to respond, set boundaries, and foster healthy relationships with your children. This ability is also crucial for kids, and ironically, they need the adults around them to demonstrate it for them to learn.                                                

Once we understand Dr. Shanker’s five domains of self-reg, we can build skills ourselves and pass them along to our kids through both modeling and teaching. The five domains are: biological, emotional, cognitive, social, and prosocial. I recommend reading his excellent book, but keeping an eye on these separate areas, and how you may get depleted in each of them, will help. I might be well-balanced in meeting my biological and social needs but be depleted in the other three areas. This practice of keeping tabs helps us stay even keel and might look like paying more attention to our stress and worries, minding our own hunger and fatigue levels, practicing deep breathing, and not taking things personally during meltdowns (theirs and ours).

I can also offer this three-step strategy to help you increase your ability to self-regulate:

  1. Notice your emotions. Nervous. Mad. Frustrated. Annoyed. Every feeling creates a sensation in your body. Whatever it is, notice it as soon as that first blush moves through your system. Irritation might feel like warmth on your face or quickened breath, or it could sound like an escalated tone of voice—that’s your clue you’ve moved into an emotional state.
  2. Watch for the story. Here’s how it plays out for me: My son resists going to bed because he wants a snack. I get irritated and a story flies into my head. It’s not usually a verbal story—or a cohesive one with a beginning, middle, and end—so pay close attention. Mine sounds like, This is total B.S.! I should not have to put up with this. I already offered him a snack. Why is my kid always hungry? Why won’t he go to sleep and give me peace? Why!? Why!!?? If bedtime is breezy for you, insert your problem area—getting out the door in the morning, child care drop-off, negotiating outfits, meals, dental visits, whatever. Everyone has something that escalates their child and pushes their buttons.
  3. Change the story. Start with, This isn’t personal, because it isn’t. If I catch myself (that’s why watching for the story comes first), I can reframe the whole situation and adjust my perpetual Why me? narrative into something more empowering, kind, and sane: I wish this kid was a better sleeper. But, alas, this is my child, and I can’t change the fact that he fights sleep. Let’s take a deep breath here. Maybe he just needs to cry, had a rough day at school, or is extra hungry because he’s having a growth spurt.

Anything is better than the victimized, powerless story I told myself the first time. Everyone’s internal dialogue is different, and maybe yours sounds like one of these:

  •       Instead of, How dare she reject the food I worked hard to prepare! Try, Kids have picky palates for an evolutionary reason.
  •       Instead of, Why won’t he put these clothes on, for Pete’s sake? Try, He is so confident in his desires. He knows what he loves to wear.
  •       Instead of, This child is the clingiest one in the bunch—why so much whining? Try, Let me see if I can fill his emotional cup with love and attention.

That’s it. Notice the emotions. Watch for the story. Change the story. It shifts how you show up to interactions with your family. With practice, children feel their feelings fully and then recover their emotional balance too. They intuitively understand when emotions disrupt the sense of well-being and safety they typically feel. One of the wonderful tools they wisely (though unconsciously) use to help them recover their thinking and regulated state is tantrums. It turns out tantrums actually help kids learn to regulate their emotions—another important reframe.


Sarah MacLaughlin is a writer and editor for ZERO TO THREE’s HealthySteps. She is also a parent coach, social worker, and author of two parenting books, What Not to Say and Raising Humans With Heart. Sarah is a human development nerd with a degree in Women’s Studies and a background in early childhood education. She is also the mom of a teenager who gives her plenty of opportunities to take her own advice. Learn more at or on Facebook and Instagram


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