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Unique Strategies to Help Your Child’s Self-Regulation

Today’s blog post about unique strategies to help your child’s self-regulation comes courtesy of my blog friend Nina. I don’t typically post guest posts, but Nina consistently impresses me with her parenting themed blog posts, so when she offered I happily said yes! Self-regulation is an important life skill, and Nina’s tips are straightforward and effective!


Do these scenarios sound familiar to you?

  • Your child follows the rules… but only if you’re looking.
  • You nag your child to do things he should already know how and when to do, such as washing his hands after using the restroom or putting his shoes away at the front door.
  • During meltdowns and tantrums, your child has a difficult time controlling his frustration and calming down.

Behind each of the scenarios lies a challenge: your child is learning how to regulate himself.

What is self-regulation? It’s not merely obedience or compliance. Self-regulation is following the rules and doing what’s right even when no one is watching.

Self-regulation is also the ability to control your impulses, whether that means starting something (like remembering to brush your teeth after dinner) or stopping something (like learning how to calm down after a crying fit).

The benefits of self-regulation also include:

  • Delayed gratification: Kids can forfeit a small reward now (however tempting it may be) for bigger rewards later.
  • Kids can consider the consequences of their actions instead of acting impulsively.
  • Kids can better pay attention and conform to classroom and social rules.

Considering all the benefits, what are some practical and actionable things you can do to encourage self-regulation in your child?

Use lists and calendars.

We teach kids best by modeling. And you probably practice one of the easiest ways to model self-regulation: using lists and calendars.

Why do lists and calendars help with self-regulation?

  • Kids learn that they can’t have everything they want right now
  • Kids learn to plan
  • Kids learn to stay organized
  • Kids learn not to act impulsively

Show your kids the lists you make, and point them to the family calendar. Write the lists in plain view of their sight. Encourage your kids to make lists of their own, such as items they’d like to have or places they can’t wait to visit.

Set timers and alarms.

Sometimes we can all use a little help regulating our impulses using timers and alarms. Let’s say your daughter wants to play outside, but “a few minutes” turns into an hour, complete with the ensuing argument about refusing to come back in even longer than that.

Instead, set a timer for 15 minutes or whichever promised time you agreed on. If your child is old enough to tell time, encourage her to keep track herself.

Implement routines.

Routines are like second parents: They do a lot of the job for you so you don’t have to nag. They also imprint a running thread in your child’s mind about what’s next to come. They’ll learn that dessert comes after dinner, that playtime comes after homework.

Similarly, give your child expectations. They’ll regulate themselves better when they know what to anticipate, learn to plan, and can rely on the predictability and structure to their day.

Teach kids how to handle something they want now but can’t have.

There’s value to not giving kids everything they want. Besides preventing spoiling your kids, not giving kids everything is also an opportunity to teach self-regulation.

It can be uncomfortable for parents to handle the ensuing argument or tantrum when kids don’t get what they want. Below are some options to seek:

  • Look for an opportunity for doing it later. For instance, if your son wants to eat the lollipop, explain it’s not that he can’t eat it ever, just that he has to wait until after dinner.
  • Find a substitute. Say your daughter wants to play with your phone but she’s not allowed. Show her a toy phone that she can play with. More importantly, include her in the search for a substitute: “My phone isn’t a toy, but let’s look in your toy bin for something you can play with.”
  • Borrow. Even if they can’t own something outright, they can learn to borrow and, just as important, return the item at the appropriate time.
  • Practice waiting. It really is okay for kids to wait, however uncomfortable it may be. They’ll learn to find ways to keep themselves occupied and make the waiting period more bearable (instead of succumbing to bad choices).
  • Accept the predicament. And if kids really can’t get what they want, show them how to accept their predicament. Acceptance isn’t defeat; it is acknowledging what can’t be, despite our best efforts.

Lessen distractions.

Imagine trying to complete your homework when all you really want to do is play with your new toy truck. Now imagine the television on, little siblings running around, and adults speaking in loud voices.

Convincing yourself—regulating yourself—to finish the homework would be much harder, wouldn’t it?

When you know your kids need to get a task done, minimize the distractions. He’ll have less obstacles in his way.

Play red light/green light games.

These fun games are more than simple recess activities—they’re a great way to help your child control her impulses, from knowing when to stop to when to go. The rules are simple: you holler “red light!” or “green light!” (or hold up a red or green sign), and depending on the color, she can either run towards you or learn to pause and stop. You can even add variables like “slow” or “fast.”

Another similar and classic game is Simon Says. You say commands such as “Touch your shoulders,” but she can only do so if you precede the command with “Simon says, ‘Touch your shoulders’.” Again, she’s learning to listen and regulate her impulses.


Self-regulation helps kids in so many ways, from controlling their emotions to running daily tasks and even to setting long-term goals.

Do you find yourself practicing the above techniques to help your child learn self-regulation? Let us know in the comments!


From Los Angeles, Nina is a working mom to three boys—a five-year-old and toddler twins. Click here to read her blog, Sleeping Should Be Easy, where she writes about parenting and everything she’s learning about being a mom.

MaryAnne at Mama Smiles
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MaryAnne is a craft loving educator, musician, photographer, and writer who lives in Silicon Valley with her husband Mike and their four children.

29 thoughts on “Unique Strategies to Help Your Child’s Self-Regulation”

  1. Great post! These are all very practical and do-able strategies. I love this statement: “Self-regulation is following the rules and doing what’s right even when no one is watching.” I think we get into the habit of “do what I say because I say it” rather than “make a good choice regardless of the circumstances.”

    1. Thanks, Nicole! The ideal situation is when our kids behave because of their own self-control and not because we’re there to monitor.

  2. Great tips, Nina! I think it’s very important to teach children that everything can’t happen exactly when they want it to, and that sometimes they have to wait. I know it’s hard for them to wait even for a minute, so they really need to be gently guided towards patience and discipline.

    1. Thanks, Tarana! Just the other day, one of my kids wanted to watch a show like he normally does, but on this particular day, it would’ve been too difficult to set it up for him. Rather than bend over backwards for him to get to watch his show, I held my ground and said we can’t always get what we want right now. He cried, and I made sure to comfort him so he knew I was on his side, but in the end, I think it served him well to learn that he can’t have everything he wants, and more importantly, that he can cope with that emotion.

  3. This is a great parenting post! Self regulation has been something my children and I have been working on for what feels like years. Thank you for the concise treatment of the topic. Pinning and sharing so that I can remember these skills. :)

  4. Nina’s always got great tips! I’m also a big believer in using timers. They’re an external source, so your child learns that the parent isn’t necessarily what’s causing the frustration.

    1. My daughter still gets mad at me for SETTING the timer. Any ideas on how to handle a kid who has had the same routines (ie wash hands before dinner, after dinner is teeth, pee, pjs and book) for years and still manages to forget what she was doing between the bottom and top of the stairs?

    2. Thanks, Leslie! :) And yup, we’re not always the “bad guys” when we can blame the fact that they have to stop watching the movie because the timer beeped hehe.

  5. Elisa | blissfulE

    I love the idea of using games to help kids learn self-regulation! I wouldn’t have made that connection, but it’s so fun!

    1. Yeah Elisa, who would’ve known huh! I remember reading that in a few places and that those games are really great for self-regulation. Keeps them from reacting all the time to actually controlling their impulses.

  6. I do most of these things, but I guess self regulation is pretty tough for little people! It is definitely getting better as my son (almost 5) gets older, and sometimes he does great — he knows he can only have chocolate milk at school on Fridays, for example.

    1. Yup Sarah—they have to learn it. Definitely comes with age. It’s amazing when I think about all the things I no longer have to remind my also 5-year-old because he’s figured out how to do it himself or he knows the rules.

  7. and it’s never too late to do this – my kids are older, and work much better with lists and timers than without!! (and me too to be honest!)

  8. Thanks for allowing this guest post. We’re doing a lot of what’s listed here by trial and error, and it works! I’m glad to see that we’re on the right path. Now, if only I could get J from saying, “What?” for everything.

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