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The team at the Child Development Unit, National University Hospital (NUH) has developed a series of mental health resources on how parents can support a child’s social and emotional well-being from a young age. In this article, we focus on self-regulation in children.

Early childhood experts are increasingly recognising the role that self-regulation plays in a child’s academic learning, development, interpersonal relationships with friends and family, and participation in everyday activities. In this guide, Chiang Jing Jing, Senior Occupational Therapist at the Child Development Unit, NUH, shares what self-regulation is and how parents can help a child develop self-regulation skills.

What is self-regulation?

It refers to an individual’s ability to identify stressors in his/her environment, and adjust his/her thoughts and behaviours accordingly to cope with these stressors. A child who is able to self-regulate can remain calm, sit still, stay focused, follow instructions and minimise disruptive behaviours even if he/she is upset or under pressure.

What are the types of stressors?

All behaviour is communication. When your child exhibits ‘poor’ behaviour, it could be that he/she is unable to cope with stressors from the environment, or demands from tasks. Try identifying the possible stressors your child is experiencing. While they differ from child to child, stressors include:

  • Physiological – Hungry, sick, overtired, bored, no time to relax
  • Distracting and overly stimulating environment – Noise, smell, mess
  • Feeling overwhelmed – Not knowing how to do the assigned task, too many enrichment lessons
  • Relationships – Being bullied, separation anxiety, missing time spent with parents
  • External factors – End of year exams, financial difficulties, loss of a loved one

How can I build my child’s self-regulation skills?

Children are not born with these skills. They need to be taught and given opportunities to practise self-regulation. This requires the support of adults they trust; adults who can soothe and guide them to think rationally, and learn how to manage stress in tough situations. This process is called co-regulation. Parents need to tune in and respond to their child’s needs in a consistent and sensitive manner. This supportive process between caring adults and children fosters self-regulation. Over time, the child will learn to self-regulate in a more sophisticated and mature manner.

Tips for Co-regulation

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(59)9 Tips to Build your Child’s Self-Regulation Skills_Image 2

Disclaimer: The information provided in this article is meant purely for educational purposes and may not be used as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment. You should seek the advice of your doctor or a qualified healthcare provider before starting any treatment or if you have any questions related to your health, physical fitness or medical condition. ​

This article was first published on the My Mental Health website, and is reproduced with permission from Child Development Unit, Khoo Teck Puat – National University Children’s Medical Institute, National University Hospital, and Temasek Foundation.

For more resources, visit https://www.nuh.com.sg/cdu-resources or https://stayprepared.sg/mymentalhealth.