Tips for Parents

Self-Regulation and Impulse Control in Young Children

By Susan Magsamen, SVP Early Learning

Your preschooler Max asks if his new friend Olivia can come over after preschool and you agree, as long as she can be picked up by nap time. While you’re preparing lunch, Olivia immediately has a meltdown and starts screaming. 

There’s a strong possibility that the new environment combined with fatigue and hunger feel overwhelming and Olivia has little ability to stop herself, think, or ask you for help. In short, in this moment, she can’t regulate her emotions, her hunger and fatigue, or her behavior.

We act in response to the sensations and feelings that arise from our brain's alarm systems. This is known as “self-regulation,” a capacity that evolves as kids gain the ability to recognize sources of anxiety or discomfort, detect the source of that discomfort, and figure out how to address it. In infancy, a baby is helpless to meet his needs of thirst and hunger by himself; he relies on you to nurse him or give him a bottle. 

Eventually, through repeated experience, kids can learn to control the impulse to cry out or demand attention when they realize they are not in imminent danger, and to tolerate any discomfort long enough to figure out how to address their needs. 

Though Olivia may have learned to tolerate some level of anxiety in more familiar environments, being with new people in a new place may lead to feeling out of control. Your first job under the circumstances might be to help Olivia calm herself. Keeping a soft tone of voice and reassuring her is key. Help take the stress away by reading a story, or holding her in your lap. When she can regain the capacity to think, she then knows that she can ask for a snack, or tell you what is bothering her. As young kids mature, the skill set for self-regulation expands to thinking, emotion and behavior, allowing them to better adjust to new rules and requirements, make friends, and tolerate frustration by learning control. Ultimately, by drawing on the knowledge that they can remain calm, think, and problem solve successfully in stressful or unfamiliar situations, young kids learn independence and gain the ability to grow into competent teens and adults. 

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