Self-regulation is one of the secrets to good mental health

By Lisa Tabachnick Hotta on September 11, 2013
“Get out of my face or I’ll slug you!” Outbursts like this are scary, but often, they’re uttered by children or teens who feel out of control. While some degree of “impulsivity” is common – even expected – children with serious behaviour issues risk negative consequences in social life, family life, academic career and mental health. Fortunately, there are methods to help combat emotional outbursts.

Encourage self regulation

Current research reveals that selfregulation (also called emotional regulation) is vital to mental health. Self-regulation is the seemingly simple exercise of evaluating one’s emotional response and making a conscious decision on how to respond. It allows us to control our emotions, rather than having emotions control us.

Effective self-regulation goes deep, as described by the B.C.based nonprofi t Canadian SelfRegulation Institute: “Enhancing a child’s ability to regulate him or herself has a dramatic impact, not only on the child’s wellbeing and capacity to learn, but an equally dramatic impact on the wellbeing of parents and educators.”

“There are many children who struggle with their behaviour – they’re aggressive, noncompliant, easily frustrated and react without ‘thinking’,” says Dr. Leena K. Augimeri, Director of Scientifi c and Program Development at the Child Development Institute in Toronto, and an Adjunct Professor at the University of Toronto. “As a result, these children get sent to the offi ce, suspended in some circumstances, are excluded from activities and/or become labeled as ‘bully’, ‘aggressor’ or ‘problem.’” Dr. Augimeri aims to help children intercept and alter these behaviours.

Tweens are especially in jeopardy of poor self-regulation. With hormones surging and pressure to succeed both socially and academically, tweens may feel emotionally ‘out of control’ and this puts them at risk of acting out, or saying and doing something they’ll later regret.

“The onset of puberty and selfregulation is a very important phenomenon,” explains Dr. Stuart Shanker, director of the Milton and Ethel Harris Research Initiative at York University, where he is also a distinguished research professor in philosophy and psychology. “Between the ages of 10 and 12, there is a prepubertal brain ‘explosion’ and this demands a new set of selfregulating skills.”

Parents can help by ensuring tweens get enough sleep and eat well. They can also assist by encouraging discussion on thoughts and feelings and helping tweens discover mechanisms to stay grounded – anything from yoga and meditation to listening to music or writing in a journal.

Programs and tools

Across Canada, a variety of handson programs are available. Stop Now and Plan (SNAP) is one of the most popular; it’s usually offered through social service agencies, mental health facilities and school boards. Developed for boys and girls under 12 at the Child Development Institute, SNAP helps kids learn to take control of their emotions and actions. “Children are great candidates for learning selfcontrol and problemsolving skills,” says Dr. Augimeri. “We see incredible results of those who learn how to stop and think before they act.”

Never too late

While early intervention is best, it’s never too late to start. Dr. Shanker says that, “As the demands on the child increase, selfregulation has to grow in concert.” Understanding tweens’ brain development and mental health needs is a good place to start.

“Self-reg” basics for tweens:

  • Take a few moments to breathe.
  • Consider your choices.
  • Make a decision.
  • Act or respond accordingly.
  • Pat yourself on the back.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, October 2013.

By Lisa Tabachnick Hotta| September 11, 2013

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