Children often have a lot of questions about adults. One of the most common ones is – if you can do whatever you want, why don’t you have cake for breakfast? Or ice cream for dinner? Why do you go to work?
To their little brains, adults are mysterious creatures. We have the freedom to do whatever we want, whenever we want. And yet, we choose to not watch cartoons till late at night. And they are right. No one can stop us from staying up till late at night. Or stop showing up at work. We won’t get arrested if we eat cake and ice cream all day either.
So why do we do it? How do we keep ourselves from slacking off and go to work every day? Why do we avoid unhealthy eating habits? How do we force ourselves to eat nutritious, less tasty food instead?
The answer to all these questions is self-regulation. It is one of the essential skills that keep us moving ahead in life. It also helps us manage our emotions and behavior. This is especially true when we feel like we are about to give in to temptation.
Before taking a deep dive into the psychology behind the subject, let’s first explore its meaning.
What is self-regulation?
The ability to self-regulate refers to the ability to control oneself. It is of two types: emotional and behavioral.
Self-regulation is defined as the ability to control oneself by oneself. It teaches you how to handle negative emotions. It helps you resist any impulsive behavior that may worsen the situation further. People who can self-regulate effectively are also capable of cheering themselves up when they are down.
Self-regulation requires deep emotional intelligence. It also covers a wide range of behavioral responses. It helps you learn how to react in a way that matches the demands of changing circumstances. The main goal of most behavioral therapy treatments is to improve self-regulation skills.
In strict psychological terms, self-regulation can mean two things.
1. Emotional self-regulation
In layman’s terms, it means managing emotions. These emotions may be positive as well as negative. For example, if you have ever talked yourself out of a depressive episode, or displayed control when you are angry – you are using emotional self-regulation.
Emotional self-regulation is not limited to completely controlling your emotions. If you have some degree of influence over your emotions in any way, you are displaying effective emotional self-regulation.
2. Behavioral self-regulation
As mentioned in the examples above, sometimes we must motivate ourselves to get up and go to work even if we don’t want to. Or, we must stop ourselves from consuming an entire pint of ice cream. This is a classic example of behavioral self-regulation.
When we act in our long-term interests that are consistent with our deepest values, we are displaying behavioral self-regulation. It means acting the way we know we ought to, despite not feeling like it.
Behavioral self-regulation has a wide range. From working towards fulfilling basic needs like shelter, food, and clothing to more important things. It can also mean working to achieving your goals, like getting a raise or a promotion.
There are four components of self-regulation. They are – standards, motivation, monitoring, and willpower.
Self-regulation theory is an outline of the components that are at work when we decide how to act, think, feel, and say. It has four components:
It refers to personal standards and desirable behavior.
It refers to the motivation to meet the standards mentioned above.
It refers to monitoring your circumstances, feelings, and thoughts that occur just before the desirable behavior.
It refers to using your inner strength for resisting temptations. It also means managing emotions that are unhealthy in the long term.
In conclusion, to develop powerful self-regulation skills, you must determine some ‘standards’ of good behavior. Then, you must develop ‘motivation’ to meet them. The next step is to ‘monitor’ your surroundings to avoid any negative behavior. You must also display the ‘willpower’ to resist urges that are not aligned with your standards.
These four components form an important part of self-regulatory behavior. They are the core tenets for making decisions under this model. They also help you make choices that are beneficial for you. It means ignoring the strong desire to engage in harmful behavior. (Like eating cake for breakfast or skipping work).
The psychology of self-regulation
Self-regulation is closely associated with self-efficacy. The concepts can be applied to develop more effective learning methods. The self-regulation model explains how the theory works.
There are several models of self-regulation that can help understand the psychology behind it. Here are the most important ones:
1. The role of self-efficacy
According to Albert Bandura, self-efficacy plays a vital role in influencing our thoughts, actions, and feelings. It refers to the belief in one’s abilities to approach difficult tasks and accomplish them. People who have high self-efficacy tend to see difficulties and hurdles as challenges that need to be mastered, instead of threats to be avoided.
People who are self-efficacious tend to be highly motivated. This is a key component of the self-regulation theory. It can also play a vital role in how much effort people expend in meeting the standards they have set. It is also helpful to assess how well they persevere in the face of failures.
2. Self-regulated learning
Zimmerman defined self-regulated learning as the process by which children and young adults take responsibility for their education. It is quite like self-regulation. It has immense significance when dealing with educational and school environments.
Just like self-regulation, the process has a few core tenets. It involves planning by the student to set goals for themselves. After that, they monitoring their performance with respect to said goals. When the task is complete, they reflect on their performance.
Broadly speaking, self-regulated learning is applied self-regulation. Studies have revealed that students gain deep insights into their learning patterns with this model is used.
3. The self-regulatory model
The self-regulatory model can help us understand how SRT works. There are five components of this model:
- Stimulus – It can be anything that provokes a reaction.
- Making sense of the stimulus – Both cognitively (by understanding it) and emotionally (by feeling it).
- Coping responses – It refers to the actions taken by you in response to your feelings towards the stimulus.
- Outcomes – The coping responses and understanding of the stimulus together influence how you behave.
- Evaluation – It involves evaluating the outcomes and your coping responses.
There is a feedback loop between all the phases. The evaluation phase tends to influence how the stimulus is perceived. It also tell us what the coping responses will be in the future. This is important because it helps you determine whether your coping responses are helpful or need to be changed in the future.
Why is self-regulation important?
There are four primary skills associated with self-regulation. Increased emotional intelligence, motivation for success, mindfulness, and executive functioning skills.
There is a lot of evidence to suggest self-regulation is important for the emotional well-being of children as well as adults. Here’s how:
1. Emotional intelligence:
Self-regulation is an essential part of emotional intelligence. The more we develop an understanding of our own emotions, the better we get at self-regulating.
2. The motivation for success:
Self-regulation is deeply related to success and motivation. No matter how well prepared you are, your plans will not be successful if you cannot fight the temptation to slack off.
Mindfulness and self-regulation are well-tied. It is difficult to practice self-regulation without monitoring one’s thoughts, emotions, and responses to stimuli.
4. Executive functioning:
Executive functioning skills refer to
- working memory (retain information for short term)
- self-control (resist temptation and set priorities)
- mental flexibility (shift focus from one stimulus to another)
Activities to help children (and adults) develop self-regulation
Different strategies can be used for improving self-regulation in young children, toddlers, adolescents, and adults. It can be used to help children who have ADHD and ASD as well.
By now, you probably have a good idea of how affirming it is to practice self-regulation. But the question is – how do you learn how to self-regulate? Here are a few tricks to help children manage their emotions, and develop self-regulation in adults:
Here is a list of some tips for supporting self-regulation in children:
1. For very young children
- Use a structured and predictable routine.
- Use roleplay to demonstrate how to act in certain situations.
- Teach them about feelings.
2. For kindergarten and preschool children
- Play games like freeze tag, hide and seek, mirror, and musical chairs
- Ask the children to repeat some patterns following you.
- Teach them to perform an action that is loud or quiet.
- Ask them to touch the body parts called out by the teacher.
3. For adolescents
- Model self-regulating behavior yourself.
- Provide opportunities to practice, monitor, and reinforce these skills.
- Provide a safe space for adolescents to make mistakes.
- Limit risk-taking behavior by restructuring the environment.
Adolescents can be encouraged to practice self-regulation by providing positive discipline. Reducing the emotional aspect of adverse situations can be helpful too. You can also highlight the results of poor decision-making. Lastly, you can coach them on how and when to use these skills.
4. For children with ADHD ( attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) and ASD (autism spectrum disorders)
Self-regulation is closely related to ADHD and ASD. Children struggling with these disorders often have a limited ability to focus. They also find it hard to regulate their attention.
- Celebrate the child’s successes and build their strength.
- Listen to the child and show respect.
- Encourage them to build social skills by setting up reinforcement systems.
- Ignore challenging behavior, like screaming and biting.
At work, you can solve almost any problem with self-regulation. Try these tips to manage your emotions in personal as well as professional life:
- Try deep breathing exercises, like mindful breathing.
- Exercise regularly.
- Laugh often.
- Spend time with yourself.
- Maintain a work-life balance.
- Reduce stress levels and try to stay calm.
- Develop hobbies and interests outside of work.
- Eat healthy and nutritious food.
- Drink plenty of water, and consume less alcohol.
- Get adequate sleep.
The tips mentioned above may appear very generalized. But the truth is that living a healthy life and reducing stress will help you save energy. Energy that you can then use for for self-regulation.
Self-regulation skills are important for an improved quality of work and life. They have a significant effect on the overall well-being of an individual. Therefore, everyone must consider them carefully and learn these skills. However, self-regulation is even more critical for parents and educators. This is because it is an important skill to teach children.
If it feels too challenging to learn self-regulation by yourself, you can consult a mental health professional.
Namrata Singh is a dentist turned writer and clinical researcher. Eager to learn about anything and everything, she is what you would call a jack of all trades and master of none. With a zeal for reading novels, books and anything she could get her hands on ever since she was little, she embarked into a writing career purely out of luck. After indulging in a freelancing career for nearly two years, she can now write on anything - from dentistry to decor, travel to technology, medicine to management - but psychology remains her first love. Having dealt with mental health issues in the past, she hopes to raise awareness for the same and help people with her work in association with The MindFool team