Photo taken in collaboration with Ang Wei Ming

The marshmallow test is one of the most famous social-science experiments: A young child is shown a marshmallow and told that he can choose to either have that marshmallow or wait another 15 minutes without eating the first one and be rewarded with two marshmallows instead.

The child who chooses to wait for two marshmallows has the ability to delay gratification, which is to suppress an impulse in order to meet another goal – getting an extra marshmallow for waiting. Delayed gratification is possibly the most well-known self-regulation skill.

A University of Michigan study defines self-regulation as a person’s ability to control their thoughts, emotions, and actions to achieve a desired outcome – be that sharing a toy, following a teacher’s directions, or not melting down when things aren’t going their way.


Self-regulation appears similar to self-control, but they are not the same.

Self-control is primarily a social skill that children use to keep their behaviour, emotions, and impulses in check.

Self-regulation is a different skill that allows children to manage their emotions and behaviour when they’re faced with challenging situations. It is not just about holding it in but calming down.

Learning to self-regulate is a key milestone in a child’s development. Children's capacity to regulate emotions affect their family and peer relationships, academic performance, long-term mental health and ability to thrive in a complex world.

A child who has difficulty in self-regulating throws tantrums constantly, which puts a strain on parent-child relationships. This negativity can impact the whole household, including siblings.

As these children cannot control their feelings or behaviour, they have a more challenging time making and keeping friends. This inability to adjust socially leads to negative behaviour and emotions such as aggression, withdrawal or anxiety.

Children with self-regulation skills can calm themselves when they’re angry and frustrated and can stop themselves from verbally expressing everything that pops into their heads. They are also flexible enough to adjust to new situations and can manage how they behave at the moment and over the longer term to accomplish goals.

Good emotional regulation in children not only positively impacts relationships, but is also a strong predictor of academic performance and success. Effective emotion management allows a student to focus on performing during tests and be less likely to be impaired by anxiety.

Children who can self-regulate also have stronger attention spans and problem-solving capabilities, and they perform better on tasks involving patience and perseverance towards long-term goals.

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Children who can self-regulate are also better able to bounce back from trauma or adversity.

Their higher distress tolerance and greater resilience allows them to manage difficult and stressful events such as the loss of a pet, the death of a family member or family separation. This helps to decrease the impact of stress that contributes to mental health difficulties.

Children who learn self-regulation grow up to be adults with self-regulation. Studies have shown that children with self-regulation skills become adolescents and adults with greater academic success, higher self-esteem, higher incomes and better physical health.

What’s more: people with self-regulation skills have been shown to make better decisions, sleep better, handle stress better, have better adult relationships and are less likely to suffer from drug and alcohol addiction.

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Emotional regulation is not a skill we are born with. Helping our kids learn to self-regulate is perhaps one of the most important tasks a parent can take on.

Here's a useful SuperHonestly story for tips on how to help your child develop self-regulation: 10 things to say to your child instead of “Stop crying!”