Trouble with self-regulation: What you need to know

By Amanda Morin

Expert reviewed by Ellen Braaten, PhD

Self-regulation is a skill that allows people to manage their emotions, behavior, and body movement when they’re faced with a tough situation. It also allows them to do that while staying focused and paying attention.

Lots of kids and adults struggle with self-regulation. They act impulsively in an emotional situation. And after the fact, they can say what they should have done instead.

It’s easy to confuse self-regulation with self-control. They’re related, but they’re not the same. Self-control is mainly a social skill.

Self-regulation, on the other hand, is like a thermostat. A thermostat kicks on or off to keep a room at a certain temperature, or a “set point.” It tracks temperature changes, compares them to the set point, and “knows” whether to heat or cool the room.

We all have a self-regulation set point. To maintain that level of control, we need to:

  • Keep track of changes in our environment
  • Assess how we’re feeling and reacting
  • Compare it to our set point
  • Adjust to get back to that point

Self-regulation is a skill that develops over time. People who struggle with it have trouble figuring out what will help them calm down when they get upset. They have a hard time being flexible when things change and might react with frustrated outbursts. It all has to do with how people process information that comes in from their senses.

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About the author

About the author

Amanda Morin

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Ellen Braaten, PhD is the director of LEAP at Massachusetts General Hospital.

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