Sensory Health Coach

What Is Self-Regulation and Why Is It Important?

Do you have a child that hits, kicks, screams in the house, rips things up, and regularly ‘loses it’?


Can you remember dreaming of reaching adulthood so you could eat chocolate cake every day for dinner and stay up until the small hours of the night on a weekday? Yet, now that we have the authority to make these decisions, we don’t.

What do these things this have to do with self-regulation? What is self-regulation and why does it matter?

Self-regulation is the ability to control oneself in all aspects, including emotions and behaviour. While it’s important as a trademark of standard, acceptable behaviour in society, some people struggle with self-regulation.

Whether it’s you who needs help with self-regulation or someone else in your life, we encourage you to keep reading. In this post, we’ll discuss whether self-regulation can be taught and some steps on how to improve self-control. It’s a big part of living in great sensory health. You won’t want to miss it.

What Is Self-Regulation?

Let’s talk in more detail about self-regulation and what it means.

A lovely simple definition is “control of yourself – by yourself.” In other words, it’s a person’s ability to manage aspects of themselves as appropriate independently of other people.

Certain situations will call for different protocols and levels of self-regulation. For example, while it’s acceptable to cry at a wedding or funeral, it’s frowned upon to shed tears at work (except in emergencies or other extreme examples). It’s expected you’ll laugh if a friend tells a joke, but laughing by yourself is seen as not exercising your self-control.

There are two types of self-regulation, emotional and behavioural. Let’s dive a little deeper into each now.

Emotional Self-Regulation

The examples above are considered emotional self-regulation. Here’s another situation that may ring true to you. If someone ever makes you angry but you talk yourself down rather than stew in it, that’s emotional self-regulation as well. It’s about understanding the correct emotions for any given situation and then tamping yours down if necessary.

Behavioural Self-Regulation

Getting back to what we talked about in the intro, why do adults not (normally!) eat chocolate cake for dinner? What inspires a person to get up and go to work, even when they don’t really want to? It’s behavioural self-regulation.

This accommodates for your short-term and long-term best interests. You know that if you ate chocolate cake for dinner, you might not be able to sleep as well. Never mind the fact that you’d probably start putting on weight that would affect your physical health. Not sleeping as well as you could, may affect you the next day, as you’d be quite tired. If you skipped work, you could get in trouble with your employer. The next time a promotion came up, you might be passed over. Even worse, repeat absenteeism could lead to your termination.

Sometimes self-regulation is also referred to as self-control, such as in Proverbs 25:27-28.

It is not good to eat too much honey, nor is it honourable to search out matters that are too deep. Like a city whose walls are broken through is a person who lacks self-control.

Which Difficulties Might You Face with Self-Regulation?

God has blessed each and every one of us with autonomy, or “the right or condition of self-government.” In other words, we’re the ones in charge of the decisions we make.

From choosing to hit the snooze alarm three times instead of once to what we wear, what we eat for breakfast, and what we time arrive at work or school, it’s all up to us. When we get home, we can decide to spend our time productively or veg out in front of the television.

Of course, autonomy can be both a blessing and a curse. Some people respect the freedom they’re given and do all the right things. Others find it difficult not to give in to what they want.

The Bible verse Timothy 3:1-5 has this to say on the conflict between autonomy and self-regulation.

But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God – having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.

We interpret the above Bible verse this way: while autonomy is important and a blessing in our lives, we can’t abuse it. We need to temper our freedom with self-governing rules to avoid the fate described above.

Can You Teach Self-Regulation?

Self-regulation is something we’re all capable of learning, but how difficult this can be will depend on how much we value our autonomy as we discover it, and how capable we are at adapting techniques to individual needs due to ASD, ADHD, anxiety and other diagnoses.

Here are the typical different stages of life and the value of self-control in each.

As Babies

Our level of autonomy starts as practically nothing when we’re very young. As babies and toddlers, your parents decide what you eat, what you wear, and when bedtime is.

The way you mold a baby’s behaviour and emotions now could set them up for a lifetime of self-regulation, although age and puberty could act as roadblocks later.

As Toddlers

Toddlers have tasted autonomy to a degree and may love it. The lessons you imparted about self-regulation may have to be re-instituted here, as toddlers can be impulsive.

When your son or daughter has a tantrum at the grocery store because you won’t buy them sweets, that’s an emotional self-regulating issue. If they don’t want to share their toys, this is a problem with behavioural self-regulation.

This would be classed as a behavioural tantrum rather than a meltdown due to sensory issues and learning how to manage behaviours due to the different roots of the behaviour or emotion is so important!

It’s important these issues not remain unchecked, as the bad behaviours can continue into childhood.

As Young Children

Children earn yet more autonomy as some enter school and spend most of the day without their parents, or for those who homeschool, as they grow they will mature and take on more responsibility within the home. Now, it’s not only your job to teach the child self-regulation, but teachers, sports coaches, and other leaders as well.

For instance, a teacher might scold the child for hogging all the crayons, as their other classmates can’t use them. At home, you’d prevent your child from eating nothing but biscuits for dinner by preparing them a nutritious meal instead which will eventually lead to them making their own healthy meals.

As Teens and Adults

By young adulthood, when many go off to college, they get to experience true autonomy with no regulation from parents.

If you grew up with behaviours that were less than stellar, it’s not too late to change your ways. In adulthood, you have the fullest degree of autonomy. No longer do your teachers or parents regulate you, but it’s on you to want to make positive changes in your lifestyle and behaviour. If you want it enough, you can make it happen.

As a Student with ADHD, Autism, Anxiety, etc.

In a classroom environment where you instruct students with learning disabilities and other diagnoses, prepare for the greatest challenge and thought needed when exploring self-regulation. These students, including those with autism and ADHD, need special support to help with their ability to regulate emotions and behaviour.

While it’s possible to inspire positive change, know that in some instances, the behaviour can’t be helped by talking only – sensory input, strategies and practices will make all the difference. Besides self-regulation techniques, medication could be necessary too.

How to Develop Self-Regulation

If you have a hard time with your own self-regulation, you don’t have to feel bad. It makes you human. Many temptations threaten to derail our progress every day, much like Adam and Eve and the desirable fruit.

For you, temptation might exist in the form of scrolling through social media when you’re supposed to be working or doing homework. You could have a hard time refraining from eating ice cream if it’s in the freezer.

The following methods for developing self-regulation can help you manage your behaviour and emotions more efficiently.

Believe You Can Do It

Our mindset is powerful. If we tell ourselves we can’t do something, we usually set ourselves up for failure. The next time you feel temptation creeping up and trying to lead you astray, remind yourself you can regulate yourself and avoid it.

Think about What Will Happen If You Give In

For those still in the academic world, you should think whether you want to skip a class. Skiving off class could disqualify you from learning important information that will come up on your next test.  For those in the world of work, finally letting your boss hear your true thoughts may make you feel better in the moment, but it could irreparably damage your relationship and potentially lead to you losing your job. So, before you act, think of the consequences.

By envisioning the worst-case scenarios, that will make you want to do better.

Learn Discipline

Having discipline will make most of your behavioural self-regulation issues easier to manage. Being disciplined isn’t about depriving yourself of something outright, but knowing when is the right time for fun and when you should knuckle down and get things done.

For example, if you’re studying for a big test and but you want to go out to grab food, tell yourself you’ll reward yourself after you finish studying. If you’re working from home, you can treat yourself for keeping the TV off all day with an hour long session after your workday ends.

Know and Avoid/Manage Your Triggers

If you’re having a hard time with emotional self-regulation, it’s worthwhile to learn what triggers the strongest emotions in you. Perhaps listening to certain music makes you sad. In that case, then before you go to work or class for the day, you’d turn on something upbeat to pump you up instead.

Using the example from before, if it’s your boss that makes you mad, you can’t avoid him or her outright. That said, you can have a strategy in place for avoiding outbursts. Maybe you squeeze a stress ball or take a short break for an outdoor walk until your emotions subside – perfect sensory based self-regulation techniques.


Self-regulation is the ability to control your emotions and behaviour according to what the situation warrants. This should cooperate with autonomy, or a person’s ability to do as they choose.

From any age and through many circumstances, it’s possible to learn and improve self-regulation. Christian Occupational Therapy Support could be your first step to better self-control and learning lesser known but powerful sensory techniques that are not about the mind, but harnessing the power of our senses to keep us in calm, alert state ready for living life to the full.

Looking forward to speaking to you soon!

 Anne Laure x

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