Updated: May 21
How would you describe the atmosphere in your home? Does it feel calm, or is the environment somewhat chaotic and uncomfortable?
If your home isn’t the relaxing and supportive mecca you always dreamed it would be, if there is often tension and stress, perhaps unmet self-regulation needs could be a contributing factor.
What is self-regulation?
The first step in improving the atmosphere in your home is understanding what self-regulation actually entails. Self-regulation consists of sensory processing, executive functioning, and emotional regulation. These three developmental skills have a significant impact on an individual's presentation and functioning in various environments. The ability to self-regulate typically develops in childhood and adolescence.
In schools, self-regulation is often considered in the context of a student’s disruptive behavior involving lack of self-control, self-management, emotional regulation, impulse control, or behavior management. The term ‘self-regulation’ is often loosely discussed without a full understanding of the many components necessary to stay calm and alert. Fortunately, more schools have adopted social and emotional learning opportunities into their school curriculum, with a focus on helping students and staff understand and develop self-regulation techniques. It is important to note that self-regulation ability varies by developmental stage and that a difficult home situation and life-changing events, as well as neurological differences (diagnosed or undiagnosed), can damage the development of self-regulation.
In your home, difficulties with self-regulation (depending on the age of family members) may look like Yoshi still wearing his pajamas in his room when it’s already time to head to school. As you attempt to change his clothes and pack his school bag in a rush, he is pacing without any effort to get ready. Or Cristina who comes home from middle school upset and rushes upstairs. She comes down for dinner but is quiet and unresponsive.
Let’s dive a little deeper into the three components of self-regulation…
Sensory processing is how our body’s wiring understands and filters through information in our surroundings. We are constantly receiving data through our senses. In a functional system, our brain filters through the sensory input and either puts it to the side or recognizes that a change needs to be made. The body is able to respond quickly, quietly, and calmly. In a differently wired or uneven system, the brain misinterprets information as danger and alarms the body to go into survival mode— flight, fight, or fright! For example, a teenager who hasn’t eaten well in a few days and is generally disengaged after his best friend has moved away.
Executive functioning refers to the more complex thinking that’s required to maneuver social challenges. In other words, what is the other person feeling and thinking in this situation? For example, executive functioning allows us to ask and answer the following questions: Why did they make a face when I said that? How would I go about discussing xyz with a friend without upsetting her? Is it okay that I do this? These internal conversations and considerations help reduce social conflicts and engage in growing social situations. Limited executive functioning may make keeping friends and personal interactions at home challenging.
Emotional regulation is the third component and involves digesting emotions and returning to our range of calm and alertness. Adults with the ability to emotionally regulate will be able to identify their emotions and know how to use strategies to switch to a desirable and timely response. For example, when a family member doesn’t clean up after themselves we will often experience an emotion before we react. How we process these emotions and react, by yelling and screaming, picking up the mess ourselves or speaking with the family member, is impacted by our ability to emotionally regulate.
The body and brain need to develop and work together for students to stay “put together.” And as social expectations become more complicated in upper grades, there’s a greater need for mastering more skills and managing multiple sets of social situations and groups.
A common language can keep everyone together.
Preparation helps to prevent big upsets and encourages independence with self-regulation. A curriculum like the Zones of Regulation® can streamline the language and strategies used to support learning and applying self-regulation strategies between home, school, and clinic. While this program was created for schools it can be adapted to your home environment.
The 4 colored zones (red, yellow, green, and blue) teach how to express emotions and cope with stressors. The lessons provide a guideline to raise awareness of their own patterns and recognize or create a personalized safety manual to reset and feel at home in their bodies again.
Every zone is valid as every emotion is okay to experience. The green zone offers the emotional freedom to learn and play. The yellow zone is using self-regulation to its maximum capacity and trying out different strategies to work with triggers and prevent complete disruptions in the day. If the stress is too great to be managed, one will reach the red zone which often resembles a state of emergency -- intense disruption like impulsivity or anger that’s disengaging to the activity at hand. The blue zone is also disengaging where the body and brain come to a complete stop. For each colored zone, there are strategies to try and record data on their effectiveness that supports the personalized self-regulation plan.
Self-regulation strategies can suddenly change and can feel overwhelming to manage especially when you’re in the thick of the red zone. Plans are worth creating and revisiting especially for those living a transient lifestyle. A trained therapist or special needs professional can help to coordinate and work with a family to come up with what works for them at home and eventually at school.
Tips for families with self-regulation needs
Check-in with yourself.
As the trusted adult and primary model for your kids, how do you cope with stress? Getting to know what helps you get comfortable in your own body and understanding how you recover from a stressful state is important in relating to what your child is going through. When self-regulation is learned naturally, it is important to bring attention to it and become aware of how it works for you consciously.
When you’re calm and alert, you are in a calm space and are available to help your child or teen recover from their difficulty with self-regulation.
This is called co-regulation and can have a big impact on the home environment and developing self-regulation techniques. The heaviness of a warm hug or rhythmic motion of stroking could feel like a comfy blanket to meet sensory and emotional needs. (It could have the opposite effect for another child -- everyone is different.) You can also use a calming voice and grounding presence by just simply sitting together to help your child journey back to his/her regulated state.
The opposite is true.
If you are not in a state of calm yourself, it is okay for you to disconnect as long as your child is safe to be on their own. Your state of self will likely impact your child so it is important to do the best you can in modeling self-regulation.
Practicing self-regulation through play builds confidence and self-esteem.
If your child loves to sing, you might invite him to sing a song in a whisper voice and switch to a louder voice. Or if your child is into pretend play, perhaps his favorite stuffed tiger is scared of loud noises and you both help to bring her back to a calm and playful state.
These are general recommendations and plans need to be personalized to every child’s individual needs. If a family requires multiple plans, they’ll have to compromise with each other. This is when a specialist consultation can be especially useful to keep up with the ever-changing needs of multiple people at different developmental stages.
Finding comfort in your body and at home
In a family where individual rivers often collide, creating a flood of emotions, being at home can feel overwhelming very quickly. By setting up personalized self-regulation plans for your whole family and committing to fine-tuning them over time, a house on fire can transform into a refuge where each individual feels safe, considered, and understood.
Aya is a pediatric occupational therapist turned cross-cultural family coach & inclusive consultant. Her specialization lies in transition management and social participation. Through her experience as a mobile OT in various Asian countries and as a learning support coordinator at an international school, she’s diversified her ways around problem solving behavioral or psychosocial issues and building capacity in the classroom, at home, and at an organizational level. When Aya arrives at a universal solution that everyone benefits from, the taste of gratification is just too good!
Kuypers, L. M., (2011). The zones of regulation: A curriculum designed to foster self-regulation and emotional control. Santa Clara, CA: Think Social Publishing.
Scherz, R. (2016). In the zone: Emotion regulation in the classroom. Retrieved from https://www.socialpublishersfoundation.org/knowledge_base/in-the-zone-emotion-regulation-in-the-classroom/