Self-regulation is a term for self-control, and to be honest I think it is a more positive way of viewing how we interact in our world. Put simply self-regulation is the ability to manage one’s thoughts and feelings in order to achieve a goal or outcome.
We all understand the need for self-control with little people because there is nothing more embarrassing than having your parenting skills put to the test when your offspring decides to throw a temper tantrum in the middle of the supermarket.
With our older kids the importance of being able to self-regulate is critical, not to save you an embarrassing moment, but to enable them to achieve success in school and the workplace, and to maintain meaningful relationships with others. During this stage of development we can be lulled into a false sense of security believing that our emerging adults need freedom to make their own decisions, and that they are capable of being independent. This is just not so. Parents are critical in the development and nurturing of self-regulation, coupled with interactions within the broader community. It is now that they need our guidance more than ever to master the skills of self-regulation, no matter how much they protest.
As obvious as it sounds, we must teach self-regulation skills through the modelling of how to do it, providing opportunities to practice, monitoring and reinforcing their progress and providing our kids with coaching on the when, why, and how to use their self-regulation skills in a range of different situations. Remember we want to send well-rounded young people out into the world, so use the things we want them to be able to do as an opportunity to teach self-regulation. Simple things such as deciding on what to eat and how to prepare a meal, holding down a part-time job and balancing school commitments, or even having a relationship, all go a long way in teaching the important self-regulation skills required for different aspects of life.
Our young people need to feel safe. They need to know that we have their back. The provisions of warm and responsive relationships where they can feel safe to learn and make mistakes are crucial. This is particularly important as they start to navigate more challenging and complex situations, such as making decisions about risky behaviors or peer pressure. Strong and positive relationships with our kids motivate them to try and be independent in the knowledge that they will be supported if they struggle along the way.
The environment we provide our kids with is critical. We need to ensure that we make self-regulation manageable for them. Clear expectations and boundaries provide our kids with limited and controlled opportunities for risk taking. We must ensure that natural consequences are ever present. They must understand that all actions produce a reaction, and while we offer a supportive and safe context to develop, they must be enabled to make decisions where the consequences are real.
Self-regulation does not happen overnight. There is no magic fix or one strategy fits all. We need to accept that our kids will make mistakes, and that it is part of the process. We must let them know clearly that we are there for them, we have their backs and if they fail, they pick themselves up, lick their wounds and try again. That is life after all.