In the last couple of weeks we have talked about some skills that are critical to self-regulation: attention and inhibitory control. We have examined how they develop. And we have noted that inhibitory control and the abilities to really direct and sustain attention can take a while to fully mature.
With so much time to develop, it is more likely that things could get in the way of optimal growth. So what kinds of things might interfere with or slow down the development of self-regulatory skills?
- Inconsistency in routines and expectations – Research has shown that when children experience high levels of inconsistency in their lives, such having many different main caregivers, or never really knowing what is going to happen next, such as whether a caregiver will be home or not, their self-regulation abilities suffer. These are extreme examples and it may take pretty severe inconsistency to really interfere with self-regulation. But the flip side is that positive, consistent expectations and limits as well as routines can help to develop self-regulation skills.
- Traumatic or scary situations – If a child is often worried about her own safety or well-being, she may not have much time to develop skills. Fear can be very overwhelming for children (and adults). A child who is often anxious and fearful may not have many opportunities to think about ways to stop himself from doing the first thing that jumps to his mind, especially when he feels threatened.
- When things always feel uncontrollable – If life is very chaotic for a child and there are not routines, it might be hard for her to practice self-regulation because she does not feel like she can control anything. Again this is the extreme case, but it does suggest that letting our children have some say in developmentally-appropriate decisions (such as what to wear) may contribute to self-regulation skills.
The situations described above are pretty extreme. As parents, we work to protect our children from trauma, fear, and feeling completely out of control. However, some children, such as those who have experienced abuse or domestic violence or have moved into multiple homes, may have particular difficulties with self-regulation. This can include problems sitting still or controlling movement, not being able to control impulses, not being able to wait for turns, and having extreme emotional reactions (like long and loud temper tantrums). It is important to recognize that these difficulties may have been caused by things that interrupted the development of their inhibitory control and other abilities. The children are NOT choosing to misbehave. They just do not yet have the skills to regulate their choices and behavior. And it may take some time after they have left the difficult situations for their abilities to catch up to those of other children their age. The good news is that there are things that adults can do to help them develop their self-regulation skills. Next week we will take a look at some ways to help children who might have particular difficulties with self-regulation.
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