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Self-regulation techniques for adults and kids

Reviewed by Stephanie Steinman, PhD, CSAC

Illustration of a dad sitting on a couch meditating as children run around the room

What is self-regulation?

Self-regulation is the ability to observe, manage, and adapt our emotions and behaviors to fit different situations. As a skill set, it includes learned behaviors like self-awareness, stress management, impulse control, emotional intelligence, and socializing. These skills help us think and act in ways that align with our values. A self-regulation skill set benefits kids and adults.

There are three kinds of self-regulation:

  • Cognitive: Observing and challenging unhelpful thought patterns
  • Emotional: Noticing and feeling emotions without letting them take over
  • Behavioral: Choosing intentional behaviors instead of reacting impulsively

Self-regulation is important because it lets us choose how to respond in an effective way instead of reacting instinctively (and often unhelpfully) to hard situations.

Self-regulation theory

Self-regulation theory (SRT) proposes that we can guide our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in order to reach our goals. Social psychologist Roy Baumeister identifies four components of this process:1

  • Standards: Identifying values-based behaviors
  • Motivation: Wanting to meet those standards
  • Monitoring: Paying careful attention to thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that make us fall short of these standards
  • Willpower: Controlling short-term urges that make us fail to reach these long-term standards

Just like building a muscle, these components can all be strengthened over time with focused attention, skill development, and potentially therapy.

Self-regulation vs. self-control

Self-control and self-regulation overlap, but they aren’t the same. Self-control is just one part of self-regulation.

Self-control governs our ability to manage our impulses in the moment, particularly when it comes to delaying gratification or resisting temptation. It’s about avoiding undesired behaviors that interfere with our long-term goals. For example, we exercise self-control when we resist the urge to snap at someone we don’t get along with.

Self-regulation, in contrast, lets us become more intentional with our thoughts, behaviors, and actions so we don’t experience unwanted temptations or urges with the same frequency or intensity. With self-control, we can endure a weekly meeting with a difficult coworker without losing our temper, but we may still dread each meeting and grumble about it right afterward. When we self-regulate, we can monitor our behavior before, during, and after the experience to figure out what’s bothering us so much. Then we can take steps to change the situation or our response to it so we stop experiencing such intense negative emotions every week.

What causes poor self-regulation?

Difficulties with self-regulation are caused by a number of factors, including mental health disorders. Typically we behave in ways that don’t align with our values when we lack self-awareness, impulse control, and emotional intelligence. Those are all key components of self-regulation.

How to self-regulate

Like all skills, self-regulation develops over time with consistent practice. It starts with identifying what your values are and how they inform your “standards”—the kinds of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors you want to shape your life.

Once you know your standards, you can start developing the motivation and willpower to meet them. You can also monitor your behavior to figure out what causes you to fall short of your standards. Then you can use self-regulation techniques to develop new ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving that line up with your values. Over time, you should be able to see improvement in how you respond to stressful situations.

Self-regulation techniques for adults

  • Mindfulness: Many therapy approaches, including mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) are based on mindfulness. This practice can help you stay present in stressful situations and observe your thinking nonjudgmentally, without letting negative or extreme thoughts hijack your emotions. In mindfulness, you work on stopping your brain from traveling to the past and the future, instead bringing it back continuously to the present.
  • Cognitive reframing/reappraisal: Cognitive reframing, also called “cognitive reappraisal,” involves challenging your thought patterns. Exploring your interpretation of stressful events can help you decide if your thoughts are true or false, helpful or harmful. Changing your thoughts can lead to changes in your emotions and, eventually, your actions.
  • Self-care: Simple practices like getting enough sleep, eating healthfully, and setting boundaries are crucial to your physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Self-care can give you the energy, willpower, or motivation to meet the standards you set for yourself.
  • Stress management: Stress can have a destructive effect on your physical, mental, and emotional health. Stress management helps you protect yourself against stress and manage its effects. Start by recognizing areas of significant stress and work on changing them: If you’re not a morning person, for example, see if you can coordinate with your job to start your workday an hour later.
  • Self-soothing: Self-soothing techniques focus on the physical effects of stress. When your heart races and your palms sweat, you can calm your body’s stress response by engaging your senses of sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch. Self-soothing in this way allows you to ground yourself in the present moment—for instance, by sitting under a cozy blanket, listening to music, and looking at vacation photos after a stressful day.
  • Deep breathing: One self-regulation mechanism that’s already built into our bodies is deep breathing. Also called “diaphragmatic breathing,” it can slow your heartbeat and stabilize or even lower your blood pressure.2 Notice how your belly, instead of your chest, rises and falls with each breath.

Self-regulation at work

Work is a great place to practice self-regulation. Instead of white-knuckling it through a stressful situation, you can figure out what’s causing your stress and find creative ways to minimize its intensity or frequency. For example, by practicing mindfulness, you can nonjudgmentally observe any thoughts or fears you may have about a meeting with your boss. Then you can choose to be present instead of worrying about what may or may not happen at the meeting. The next time your boss pops up on your calendar, you may find it easier to stay present instead of becoming anxious.

Self-regulation techniques for children

Kids benefit immensely from self-regulation practices. The big emotions and stressful situations of childhood are an opportunity for children to learn and practice self-regulation techniques that will serve them throughout their lives.

Techniques that help children self-regulate tend to look different than adult techniques. Kids are still learning to exert self-control and express positive and negative feelings in healthy ways. You can strengthen their self-regulation abilities by:

  • Practicing deep breathing together: Lie down on the floor with a stuffed animal on your bellies and watch them go up and down.
  • Limiting environmental stimuli: Notice noises in your environment, like a ticking clock, and try to create quiet spaces.
  • Helping them put words to feelings: On the way home from school, name a time when you got frustrated or something that made you happy that day.
  • Encouraging them to use excess energy to run, dance, and play
  • Allowing them to take breaks as needed: Set up a cozy corner that the family knows is a break space.
  • Singing songs or reciting poems that teach lessons about how to deal with feelings and urges
  • Helping them prepare for a potentially stressful situation (like the first day of school) by talking it through beforehand: Visualize what will happen during the day, then figure out a special plan for afterward, like their favorite meal.

Self-regulation and mental health

If you’re struggling with self-regulation, it’s not your fault. Certain mental health disorders make it difficult to regulate your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Kids may find it especially hard to self-regulate if they’re living with one or more of the following:

How to get help

If you or your child are struggling with self-regulation, you may want to seek out professional help. Therapy can help you learn to regulate your emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Common therapies that teach self-regulation include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT teaches you how to identify and reshape unhelpful thoughts that may contribute to negative emotions and behaviors.
  • Dialectal behavior therapy (DBT): Grounded in the foundations of CBT, DBT teaches skills in four general areas—core mindfulness, emotion regulation, distress tolerance, and interpersonal effectiveness.
  • Self-regulation therapy: Neuroscience shows that the more we think a certain way, the more our brains are inclined to follow that line of thinking. Self-regulation therapy helps create new pathways in the brain that promote healthier responses to stress.

To find a therapist near you, browse our directory.


About the author

The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.

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