Self Regulation Introduction
In dealing with the pandemic and the plethora of problems it has brought into people’s lives over this past year, many have recognized the necessity of intentionality in the area of mental health. This new, or renewed, curiosity about how to keep oneself healthy in the face of experiencing such a variety of disruptive events, has elicited many varying responses. These high levels of emotional bombardment and our responses can often generate additional anxiety and stress, and in some instances can lead to higher incidences of depression. The ability to cope with many of these things has a relationship with something called self-regulation, which is the ability to manage one’s emotions, behavior and body movement when faced with difficult situations.
When attempting to understand this phenomenon, it is not uncommon to confuse “self-control” with “self-regulation.” Self-control is the ability to keep emotions and impulses in check, both when alone and in social situations. Many of our current situational responses to mask-wearing for example, have to do with self-control, whereas the fears or anxiety one may feel about the pandemic has more to do with self-regulation. However, both are skills that can be developed over time.
In my practice, I have found that many clients struggle with self-regulation, not knowing what it is or how to help themselves. These struggles often lead to greater difficulties in responding emotionally in certain situations where one might find conflict between the ability to self-regulate and self-control. This mismatch often increases stress and anxiety, has implications with anger management, and communication with others. It can cause despair and depression, relationship difficulties, or in extreme cases even violence or abuse.
In learning to practice better self-regulation, one might improve self-esteem and self-confidence, as well as find an overall reduction in some of the symptoms related to the distress and psychological turmoil they may be feeling.
Below is an article by my colleague, which explores the potential for improving our self-regulation. Several followup articles will explore the concept further, sharing examples of what self regulation really is and how to improve it through techniques such as mindfulness-based interventions, cognitive reframing (changing thoughts), and other emotional regulation strategies.
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Introduction to Self-Regulation of Youth and Adolescence
By Joel A. Bennett, M.Ed.
“Why can’t you control your meltdowns?” “Why is it so hard to focus on what you are working on?” “Why do your emotions swing so far so fast?” As a parent and educator, with 15 years in both the classroom and the home, I have heard these questions and others like them from many other parents, as well as pondered them myself. Is it only anecdotal stories that make me think that Americans are decreasing in their ability to control themselves, their emotions, their responses? Psychology has developed the umbrella idea of self-regulation which encompasses our ability to self-monitor, –evaluate, –react, –judge. It includes focusing and maintaining attention as well as physiologically controlling our stress response (Cellar et al, 2011, Blair and Raver, 2015, Pandey et al, 2018).
Wow! That sounds exactly like the types of problems parents and my colleagues have been noticing! Because my personal and professional observations align with these observations, I wondered, “If this umbrella idea of self-regulation has been identified, is there evidence on how to improve these abilities?” I looked at 18 peer-reviewed articles focused on youth and adolescence (2-18-year-olds) and found clear demonstration that, YES, SELF-REGULATION CAN BE IMPROVED!
A very helpful way of looking at improving self-regulation is to break the problem into two realms of focus: biological and cognitive (Cole, Ram, & English, 2019). Think of this scenario: You are walking from your room for your morning coffee when you step on your child’s cars that were left in the hallway. You went to bed late, woke up with a tremendous agenda that may or may not get finished before you must run your kids to appointments. You are not biologically at your peak. Maybe not even in your top 75%. If you have had a moment like the one I just described, you may recall responding in a way you were regretful about later. I know I have asked for forgiveness after moments like this. Cole, Ram, and English (2019) lump exhaustion, hunger, lack of rejuvenation, and the like into the biological realm.
Our children find themselves in this predicament many times, too. Many parents instinctively pack snacks, create routines for sleeping, exercise, fresh air, and quiet time into the day-to-day rhythm. Galla and Duckworth (2015) found that building beneficial habits provides the strongest positive life outcomes. A quick snack or regular waking and sleeping schedule may address an individual’s ability to control impulses, maintain focus or self-awareness and become the least costly solution to improved self-regulation.
The second realm to consider when looking at ways to improve self-regulation is the cognitive. Do we have the neurological pathways to respond, to control, to become aware of ourselves? These neuropathways are developed in the context of our relationships rather than individually. It has been demonstrated that high doses of parent-child “attunement,” a neurologically synchronized give and take, co-creation experience, have significant impact in the youth who experienced the ongoing activities with the parents (Davis, Bilms, & Suveg, 2017). Another give and take role playing model was found in the Tools of the Mind preschool and Kindergarten curriculum. This curriculum utilizes mature, dramatic play to improve executive function (Diamond, Barnett, Thomas, & Munro, 2007). It ought not to be a surprise that traditions from the past that have been cast aside, such as family dinners where people look at one another and engage in the give and take of creating a space or Holy Days with traditions and engagement or walks in nature, were more valuable than we previously thought. These former traditions provided regular and routine opportunities to attune to our loved ones and invest in their neurological abilities to self-regulate!
And while it is true that past traumas of rejection, attachment issues and disorders, or harms play a strong role in self-regulation, we can make progress and strengthen the positive alternatives to dysregulation by considering the push and pull relationship between the biological and the cognitive.
Blair, C., & Raver, C. C. (2015). School Readiness and Self-Regulation: A Developmental Psychobiological Approach. Annual Review of Psychology, 66, 711-731.
Cellar, D., Stuhlmacher, A., Young, S., Fisher, D., Adair, C., Haynes, S., …Riester, D. (2011). Trait Goal Orientation, Self-regulation, and Performance: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of Business and Psychology, 26(4), 467-483. https://doi-org.wgu.idm.oclc.org/10.1007/s10869-010-9201-6
Cole, P.M., Ram, N., & English, M.S. (2019). Toward a Unifying Model of Self-regulation: A Developmental Approach. Child Development Perspectives, 13(2), 91-96. https://doi-org.wgu.idm.oclc.org/10.1007/s10802-010-9418-x
Davis, M., Bilms, J., & Suveg, C. (2017). In Sync and in Control: A Meta-Analysis of Parent-Child Positive Behavioral Synchrony and Youth Self-Regulation. Family Proces, 56(4), 962-980. https://doi-org.wgu.idm.oclc.org/10.1111/famp.12259
Diamond, A., Barnett, W.S., Thomas, J., & Munro, S. (2007). Preschool Program Improves Cognitive Control. Science, November 30; 318(5855): 1387-1388.
Galla, B. M., & Duckworth, A. L. (2015). More than resisting temptation: Beneficial habits mediate the relationship between self-control and positive life outcomes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 109(3), 508-525. Doi:10.1037/pspp0000026
Pandey, A., Hale, D., Das, S., Goddings, A. L., Blakemore, S. J., & Viner, R. M., (2018). Effectiveness of Universal Self-regulation – Based Interventions in Children and Adolescents: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA Pediatrics, 172(6), 566-575. https://doi-org.wgu.idm.oclc.org/10.1001/jamadediatrics.2018.0232