Toddlers and self-regulation

Parents can help their toddlers learn to self-regulate

Toddlers and Self-Regulation: A Guide for Parents. Parents often ask me, how do I help my toddler to self-regulate? Unfortunately, almost all parents experience the toddler tantrum stage. Some toddlers are fairly adaptable; they can cope with change and settle quickly with comfort and distraction. Others, however, struggle with outbursts and have prolonged temper tantrums that many parents find exhausting. Self-regulation is an essential skill for toddlers and crucial for healthy emotional development. The good news is that it’s about more than just the child’s temperament because there’s a lot that parents can do to help their toddler develop their self-regulation skills.

What is self-regulation?

In simple terms, self-regulation is the ability to manage our thoughts, feelings, and actions. Self-regulation develops early; parents can help children develop these lifelong skills from infancy.

Why is self-regulation important?

Self-regulation skills are essential for children’s success in handling stressful and challenging situations. In addition, children with good self-regulation skills are less likely to have behavioural problems and more likely to have healthy relationships with others.

Sound self-regulation is also a building block for learning other skills, such as attention, problem-solving, planning, and decision-making. All parents want their children to cope with their emotions and control their behaviour. However, knowing what to expect during early childhood can be challenging when children are very young, and tantrums are common.

Let’s take a closer look at self-regulation in toddlers and what parents can expect during this exciting but challenging developmental phase.

Infancy and Co-regulation

Throughout the first year of their life, infants require constant assistance from their parents to manage their emotions and behaviours. For example, when babies experience hunger, tiredness or discomfort, they cannot regulate themselves and consequently cry or fuss. This is where the role of parents and caregivers comes into play – they must respond to these needs to provide sustenance and comfort to the baby. Through vocalisations, body movements, gestures, and interactions, parents and caregivers can successfully convey to the infant that they are understood and supported during times of distress, which ultimately aids in soothing the infant and calming them down. This process is known as co-regulation, and it plays a critical role in fostering self-regulation skills in infants as they continue to develop.

Self-regulation in Toddlers: Ages 1-2

As toddlers move into the 1-2 age range, they explore their surroundings and develop a sense of autonomy, wanting to do more for themselves.

In the early stages of self-regulation, toddlers may show some signs of independence but still rely heavily on their parents for support. They will likely display strong emotions and temper tantrums as they learn to manage their feelings and cope with the challenges of stressful new experiences, such as separating to go to bed at night or starting at childcare.

Another way parents can help toddlers develop their self-regulation skills is by providing a safe and nurturing environment and positive and nurturing interactions. Creating a consistent routine and supportive relationships during these stressful times helps toddlers feel more secure and develops their sense of control.

It is also helpful to anticipate toddler needs and respond to them before they get frustrated; for example, have snacks on hand when out and about so they don’t become hungry, and take some extra toys or books with you if you anticipate a lengthy wait somewhere.

 A father and a toddler boy with blonde hair making a salad together in a kitchen

Offering choices and emotional support encourages self-regulation skills

Self-regulation in Toddlers: Ages 2-3

As toddlers approach their third birthday, they become more independent and increasingly curious about the world around them. As a result, they are more confident in their ability to make choices and take on new challenges.

During this stage, toddlers may become more assertive and display more pronounced emotions, such as anger, fear, and frustration. However, they can also express their feelings more emphatically using words instead of just crying and screaming.

Parents can help encourage self-regulation in toddlers at this stage by acknowledging their feelings and helping them understand why things are happening. This will provide them with emotional support. For example, responding with statements such as “ I can see you are upset about leaving the playground, but it’s time to go home so we can make our dinner.”  In addition, toddlers develop their sense of control when offered choices and allowed to make some age-appropriate decisions. For example, “ Do you want to hold my hand or carry your teddy?”

Self-regulation in Preschoolers Ages 3-4

By the time children reach age 3-4, they have developed more understanding of their emotions and have an increasing vocabulary. They can express how they feel using words and are also becoming more aware of the feelings of others. They may remark on how others feel, for example, “Why are you feeling sad, mummy?’ They also demonstrate empathy, wanting to help others if upset or hurt. They are increasing their self-regulating ability but still need lots of adult support.
Challenging times can be coping with transitions and separations. During these times, toddlers require simple explanations about when you are leaving and returning, reassurance and predictability.

Parents can help toddlers further develop self-regulation skills at this stage by teaching simple problem-solving and coping skills, such as using their words to explain how they feel or taking a break or having a rest.

dark haired mother holding a smiling self- regulated toddler on her lap and smiling

Toddlers learn about emotional expression and self-regulation from the adults around them.

Quick Tips for Parents

  1. Have a consistent routine: Establish a daily routine with a predictable schedule to help children feel secure and stable.
  2. Model self-regulation behaviour: Children learn through imitation, and parents are their most significant influence, so be a good role model. Be aware of your emotions and model healthy expressions of your feelings.
  3. Give them some agency. Allow children to have some control over their decision-making. Giving them age-appropriate choices helps them to feel empowered and responsible.
  4. Notice and praise: Notice and praise your child’s efforts when they control their behaviour and emotions.” I saw how you were frustrated when Thomas took your toy, but you were very kind and let him have it; great sharing.”

Self-regulation is a vital skill for children to develop because it prepares them for success in both school and life. While the stages of self-regulation can vary from child to child, understanding what to expect during the early childhood phase helps parents provide support and guidance to help their toddlers self-regulate.

By creating a safe and predictable environment, supporting infants and toddlers through their challenges, and providing a positive and nurturing home life, parents can help their toddlers develop healthy self-regulation skills that will stay with them for a lifetime.

If you’d like to read more about how to help your toddler with their emotions, look at our Blog Post, 5 Ways to Help your Toddler with their Emotions.