I try to shy away from jargon, but when it comes to self-regulation I think that other terms you might hear to describe your child’s behavior are too limiting. You may even hear those terms from other professionals. However, ultimately everything fits under the umbrella of “self-regulation.” Some of the words you may hear*:
Sensory processing/Sensory modulation
*This does NOT mean that these terms are synonymous!
So, What Is Self-Regulation?
Self-regulation is the ability to stay in control and to adjust to environmental demands. Being able to self-regulate is important for functioning in everyday life. Most children learn this relatively early in life, as they learn to follow adults’ expectations.
For example, a child having a tantrum with kicking and screaming would not be demonstrating the ability to self-regulate in that moment. The child knows the expectations and is not reacting appropriately. If this were a 2-year-old child we would not think this was unusual. We don’t expect that they will be able to self-regulate all the time. However, if this were an 8-year-old child this would not be typical of a child her age, and she may need some help to learn how to be in control.
Being able to regulate ourselves involves both our cognition and our alertness level, which is controlled by our nervous system. For some children being able to stay in control is not as easy as peers and their nervous systems need more support. This is especially true for many children with autism spectrum disorders, ADHD and anxiety.
Some children need strategies that support the nervous system to help them have better self-control. This is most effective when we teach them to become aware of their or energy level and how to use the strategies to adjust it.
Some signs that children might need sensory strategies for their nervous system to help them self-regulate:
*they are in constant motion or hyperactive
*they have a hard time paying attention
*they need repetition and reminders to follow even simple directions
*they have a hard time getting things done (homework, chores, etc.)
*they are constantly touching other people and things
*they have anxiety
*they rock unconsciously
*they chew on things (clothing, hair, pencils, nails, etc.) or licks non-food objects
*they over-or under-react to touch, sound, sights, smells, temperature, taste
*they fear or avoid movement
*they are more lethargic than other children
Adults self-regulate too! We all use things to help us stay alert and calm down. For instance, you might get up and move around if you are getting lethargic sitting at your desk. If you are anxious you might wiggle your foot, tap your pencil or chew some gum. If you are really mad you might go for a run. These are all (healthy) sensory strategies we use for self-regulation that we do without much thought.
Unfortunately, some children don’t always have the self-awareness or the skills to help them self-regulate! They also often don’t have the ability to access strategies that adults might use. Does this sound like something your child needs? Check out our self-regulation group, Energy Blasters, which teaches children self-awareness and strategies for self-regulation, or contact us for individual therapy.