Young children learn how to cope with their emotions and stressful events through their parents or primary caregiver. This means that when our children experience upset, it is our job to help soothe them. They cannot do this by themselves yet. We are very social creatures and to be human means that we regulate our emotions through social connections. Even as adults we need the occasional shoulder to cry on or the friend to lend an ear.

We need to be that constant and non-judgemental place for our children to experience the full spectrum of emotions. We can recognize, label, and acknowledge their feelings as well as the reasons behind them. We can do this in moments of upset as well as moments of calm. It doesn’t mean we can’t “hold our line” or “follow-through” on what we’ve asked of them. It just means that our children feel understood by the most important big people in their life.

Self-regulation is how we adapt our responses, it means being able to express and cope with strong emotions in appropriate ways—for a toddler, this may mean saying “I’m mad” and “Mine” instead of biting. Regulation also involves thinking skills, as we decide which of our impulses to act on. Developing this regulation or self-control begins at birth and continues across our lives. It is a skill that is critical to children’s school success and overall healthy development. It enables children to cooperate with others, to cope with frustration, and to resolve conflicts. Young children learn these skills through interactions with others and guidance from parents and other caregivers.

Babies are born with very limited regulation. They have little-to-no ability to control their emotional states or behavior. However, the process of developing these skills begins in a baby’s earliest months and continues across the first three years and beyond:

  • A newborn is being changed and protests by squirming and crying. His father says, “Almost done, little man. I know you don’t like this. Hang in there, I’ve just got to get your pants on.” Then the father scoops his son up and holds him until he stops crying. This baby is learning that he can count on loved ones to help him regain control when he is feeling overwhelmed.
  • A pre-walker pulls themselves up on a low table and gets the TV remote. They are happily pushing buttons when mom sees and gently removes it and puts it out of reach, while saying, “The remote is not a toy, sweetie. Here, this is fun.” She offers him a “busy box” with lots of buttons to push and things to move around. This baby is learning about home expectations, how to cope with disappointment, and how to accept a substitute when their first choice is off-limits.
  • A 2-year-old wants the toy that another toddler is playing with. He grabs it; when his friend protests, he strikes out and begins to cry himself. His mother calms him and then helps him return the toy to his friend. She explains that hitting is not okay and gives him the words he needs to ask for a turn with the toy. This toddler is learning how to manage and express his strong feelings and impulses; to calm himself, and to make acceptable behavioral choices.

Below are a few tips on how you can help your child regulate based on their age.

Birth to 12 Months

Babies have very little self-control. They naturally act on thoughts and feelings without the ability to stop themselves. With thoughtful guidance from parents and caregivers, babies begin to regulate their feelings and actions.

  • Help your child to soothe herself. The more relaxed and safe your baby feels the more in control they will be. Babies have different ways of calming. Some need lots of physical contact such as rocking or hugging; others prefer to feel swaddled or put down for a minute. You teach your child to calm herself by being there, staying calm, and being attuned to what they may be needing in that moment. This helps them feel regulated and safe.
  • Focus on acceptable behaviors. Tell and show your child what they can do, not only what they are not allowed to do. If he’s throwing balls around the house, give them alternate options. For example, an empty trashcan to throw balls/objects into or take them outside and show them where and how to throw the ball. This helps them learn what your expectations are.

12 to 24 Months

Toddlers have minds of their own and many demonstrate their strong feelings with gusto. “No!” often becomes a favorite word and powerful communication of their independence. At the same time, toddlers can become easily frustrated. There are still many things that they want to do but cannot. Routines are especially helpful tools for parents at this time as the predictability of routines makes children feel secure when they can feel very out of control.

  • Give your child opportunities to choose. Giving children, even young toddlers, opportunities to choose allows them some power and lets them know you trust them to make good decisions. Choices we give our children at this age are within our control. Offer choices that are acceptable to you. Choices help them with a sense of control. For example: Let your child make decisions about what to play, what to read, or what to have for a snack (give them two healthy snacks to choose from).
  • Label and recognize your child’s feelings. Letting children know their feelings are being read by you gives them the message that they are communicating them to you. How they communicate them, however, is not always socially appropriate. Giving the feeling a label helps them calm down and regain control. You ‘get it’. You’ve heard! This doesn’t mean you give in to their demand. “I know you are mad it’s bedtime, but hitting me is not okay.” You can say “I don’t want to”. Then you validate their feeling “You don’t want to go to bed now, but it is bedtime.” “We have time for one book or two songs before bed, Which would you like?” Naming and recognizing their feelings helps your child learn to manage his emotions, an important skill necessary for later success.

24 to 36 Months

Older toddlers often find it difficult to stop themselves from acting on their desires. Recognizing their feelings and providing ideas of other ways they can express themselves remains the best response at this age. As they grow, encourage them to think about what else they can do—throw the balls into the laundry basket instead of at the wall. The ability to substitute an acceptable action for one that is not acceptable is essential for functioning well in our communities.

  • Give your child opportunities to choose. Present them with two acceptable options and let them choose, “Would you like to brush your teeth or put on your pajamas first?” As they approach 3 years old, you could inject some humor to change things up. Do you want to brush your teeth, your hair, or your belly first?”Rather than saying “get your rubber boots”, help them to think it through on their own: “It is raining out. What will you need to bring to daycare for the rain-walk with your class?” If a decision is really yours, don’t offer a choice. Say, “It’s bedtime,” not “Are you ready to go to bed?” This can be a hard habit to break. If you find yourself asking when you meant to be stating something you might try something like this. Parent: “Are you ready to go to bed?” Child: “No” Parent: (internal voice: oops I didn’t mean to ask.) “Okay not yet. It’s almost time. In two minutes it will be bedtime.”
  • Help your child learn to wait. Waiting is one form of self-control. It teaches them that when you want something you do not always get it right away and that others have needs too. Make the wait-time short and at first, you may give your child something to do in the meantime. You may start the waiting experiences with a familiar adult who your child will trust to give them a turn or to act on their wants reliably. As they have more positive experiences, and they are successful with waiting they will be able to transfer some of these skills with peers. Playing with friends offers many opportunities to help your child learn to wait, to respond to others appropriately, and to take turns. With your modeling, guidance, support, and lots of practice, your child will become well equipped to engage with others in a mutually enjoyable way.