Learning Self-Regulation

This is the third blog in a series titled, “The Core Concepts of Development.” Click here for part 1 and click here for part 2.


The ability to self-regulate is the backdrop of capabilities that allow the child to concentrate on a task, focus on another person’s feedback in a social situation, and control emotions in positive ways (Bronson, 2000a, 2000b; Kopp, 2000).

Just what is self-regulation?

As an infant grows, they begin to recognize things about themselves – when they are sleepy, when they are hungry, when they need to go to the bathroom, or when something makes them upset.  Children begin to learn independence and also to learn to self-regulate or control their physical bodies, as well as their thoughts and emotions.    

As a parent, I was very excited to watch my children do many “firsts” – first steps, first time feeding themselves, first time using the bathroom, and first words.  These are examples of physical growth and regulation.  I never thought much about the fact that they were also learning emotional growth and regulation.  

Children need to learn

  • to wait,
  • to think before acting,
  • to recognize consequences,
  • to think of the needs of others and cooperate with others, and
  • to model appropriate social behavior.  

Children who do not self-regulate are difficult to be around.

 They whine, demand & insist on getting their own wayThey refuse to share, or take turns, or listen to advice from anyone.  They have a difficult time finding or  and maintaining friends. They are impulsive, acting without thinking, and frequently causing harm to themselves or others because they lack the ability to see identify cause and effect. Control is also related to obesity. For some children, a lack of self-control can manifest itself as over-eating and evetually obesity. However, obesity can also be the result of a child exercising self-control in an unhealthy way. For example, abused children (especialy sexually abused children) will often put on weight to make themselves appear less attractive or because eating is the only thing they think they can control. In the latter case, this type of self-control can also lead to anorexia or bulimia because the child may feel, “Since I can’t control anything else in my life or how I’m treated, at least I can control what and how much I eat.”

Advances in motor skills make it possible for preschoolers to feed themselves when they are hungry and put on a sweater when they are cold.  Cognitive and emotional maturity signals a greater ability to delay gratification, to sit still and read a book, and to cope with the stresses of separation or loss.  Development may be viewed as the child’s ability to function more independently in personal and social contexts (Bronson, 2000; Kopp, 2000; Sameroff, 1989; Sroufe and Waters, 1977).  

As children mature, their capacity to exert their own autonomous control is essential and must be directed and encouraged by parents so self-control can be developed in a healthful manner.

In other words, do what you can as parents to – help your child to grow up!


For more information:


Shonkoff, J. P., Phillips, D. A., & National Research Council (U.S.). (2000). From neurons to neighborhoods: The science of early child development. Washington, D.C: National Academy Press.

Wittmer, D.S. & Petersen S.H. (2010) Core concepts of prenatal, infant, and toddler development. Retrieved from: http://www.education.com/reference/article/core- concepts-prenatal-infant-toddler/


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