Self-Regulation Skills for All Ages —Even Toddlers!

by Nicholeen Peck

As parents, my husband and I hope that our children will succeed as parents. My daughter, Paije, has exceeded my parenting expectations with her little toddler daughter, Clara. The skills that Paije has taught Clara to help her do self-regulation and self-calming are good skills for 21-month-olds, however, these self-government skills that Clara started learning when four months old, can be used by all ages. 

Self-government is being able to determine the cause and effect of any given situation and possessing a knowledge of our own behaviors so that we can control them. This means that a person is able to analyze their goals, their outcomes, their thoughts, and their plans and choose to self-direct in a variety of circumstances. Self-government is a principle of freedom that most people work their entire lives to achieve. 

Self-regulation is being able to understand and manage your reactions, feelings and behaviors no matter whats happening around you. While self-government has broad application to individuals, groups, or nations, self-regulation is all about the individual and is a vital key to having self-government as an individual or a group.


The Mouth of Babes 

Clara, my 21-month-old grand-daughter, is better at self-regulation at her age than any of my children were at the same ages because her mother was raised understanding that self-government is possible if deliberately taught, and she took intentional steps to teach her daughter calmness. Let me explain. 

Last week, Clara came on her first camping trip with Grandpa and Grandma. She has been taught that fire is hot and can hurt her, so when she saw a fire in a fire pit 80 yards away from our camp, she looked at it and immediately got concerned while saying, “hot, hot…” Then, without any prompting from anyone she told herself, “deep breaths, deep breaths…” as she breathed in through her nose and out through her mouth. The next night she told herself “deep breaths” a few times and then enjoyed sitting by our campfire. I was amazed!!! She had been trained to know when she was concerned and that being concerned was best dealt with by choosing calmness and using her deep breathing calm plan. The other adults in our camp could not believe this calmness was possible in a person so young. 

Back in May, Spencer and I were helping Clara with a messy situation. Clara had to lay on a cold hard floor while we cleaned up her “blow out” far from home and comfort. Clara started crying. I told her, “It’s okay Clara. Grandma will take care of this.” Clara immediately trusted me and started taking deep breaths. She took five deep breaths, calmed herself down, and then waited patiently while we cleaned her up without anyone telling her to take the deep breaths. 

“Did I just see that?” I asked myself. “Can a 17-month-old child actually self-regulate without help?” Clearly the answer was yes.

While babysitting Clara, I started playing silly and dipped Clara down when she wasn’t expecting it. I thought Clara would laugh or smile, but instead she looked concerned. Instantly, Clara told herself, “deep breaths” and then took a big breath. Then she smiled and looked okay. She calmed her fears and chose to not have anxiety. 

Lastly, Spencer (Grandpa) gave Clara a “no” answer about playing with some lip balm. Clara knows how to get calm and disagree appropriately with Grandpa, but this time she chose to scream. I (Grandma) took Clara to her calm down spot and told Clara that it was time to take deep breaths so that she could go talk to Grandpa about the lip balm. Clara counted to three with me while taking three deep breaths. Then she disagreed appropriately with Grandpa by saying, “Bapa, I know you said, no lip balm. Can I have lip balm, please?” 

This appropriate disagreement was done in baby language and broken sentence form with some help from me, but Clara did it with complete calmness and got to use the lip balm for a minute in the end. She was so proud of herself. She saw that yelling wasn’t the way to solve her problems or to be understood. 


Clara’s Teaching 

Clara’s mother and father have consistently taught her what calm is and what it is not. They speak calmly with her when she goes out of control so that she doesn’t learn to power struggle. They advocate for her calmness and self-regulation so that she can have understanding instead of manipulating her emotions by getting emotional with her or ignoring her emotions.  

Clara has a calm plan with multiple levels. First, she is instructed how to recognize what she is feeling and how to be calm while expressing herself if she seems to be having a problem that is distressing her. This includes deep breathing and using her self-government skills. Second, if she can’t or won’t get calm with the first teaching, then she goes to a calm down spot to take deep breaths to get ready to talk. While in the calm down spot Clara is coached on calming down and breathing. 


What Adults and Older Children Can Learn from Clara 

Self-regulation doesn’t happen without planning. Clara’s parents decided to set her free from her fears, anxieties, and frustrations by teaching their young daughter what those things feel like and what calmness feels like. We can also analyze these feelings within ourselves so that we can choose emotionally healthy paths for ourselves too. 

Second, when Clara is struggling to find her calmness or gets caught up in nonproductive emotions or behaviors, her parents have a plan for her, including exact words and coaching and a calm down plan (spot), to help her choose what she already knows works best for her- calmness. 

We can deliberately establish a plan for ourselves to understand our thoughts and emotions better, decide what emotions are productive, and which are non-productive, and choose to coach ourselves toward productive emotions, like calmness. If we know that we work better with a coach, then we can ask a family member or friend to help us remember what to think and tell ourselves if we feel that we are losing control of ourselves or not self-regulating well.

Third, all situations, thoughts, feelings, and actions are talked about so that Clara can feel understood and do even better at her self-regulation plans in the future. In our deliberate plan, after we are calm, it is very healthy to look back on the situation and learn from it for increased future success. Talk out your successes and failures with a loving family member, friend, or in a journal so that you can see your experiences more clearly. In the Teaching Self-Government parenting program, we call these conversations feedback or parent counseling sessions. 

It’s never too early or too late to plan for calmness and self-regulation. There is no phase or season of life that is exempt from the ability to improve self-awareness, self-regulation, and self-government. Self-government is a principle. That means it is broadly applicable and eternal. It’s also a vital principle of freedom. But, alas, like many other principles of freedom, it takes work and must be personally chosen. Luckily, Clara, at age 21 months, has shown us that we can all keep choosing self-government, even if we can’t form complete sentences. 

Watch baby Clara take deep breaths and disagree appropriately in these videos on the Teaching Self-Government YouTube channel. 



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