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May 6, 2021

5 Warning Signs Your Child Struggles With Self Regulation

Self Regulation

As a parent you often come to a crossroads with your child. Is this normal? Should I handle this differently? Would it be better if (fill in the blank)? Perhaps you are at a crossroads with your child’s behavior. Now, there are endless possibilities to why they could be struggling, but have you ever considered their behavioral issues could be linked to self regulation?

Frequently behavior that is less than desirable gets dismissed as behavioral issues needing more discipline or strategies, when in fact there could be underlying self regulation (and most likely sensory) challenges at play.

In an effort to bring light to these common misconceptions, I’ve pinpointed 5 of the most common warning signs that your child could be struggling with self regulation. But first let’s make sure we all have an understanding of what self regulation is –

What is self regulation?

Self regulation is your child’s ability to change their level of alertness in any given situation throughout the day. When we say level of alertness (also referred to as arousal or alert states) we are referencing the state of your child’s nervous system. In a way it’s the energy we feel.

Our level of alertness can vary from revved up, bursting with energy, to relaxed, almost no energy & everything in between. One level of alertness isn’t necessarily better or worse than the other, they all serve their own purpose, however when we struggle to change our level of alertness when needed – say when your child needs to switch from a high arousal state from recess to a focused state to learn – we can run into some problems.

Now that we have a basic understanding of self regulation, let’s get to those warning signs you should keep an eye out for.

5 warning signs your child struggles with self regulation –

Your child has difficulties with transitions

This could look like having trouble getting out of an exciting environment (like a birthday party or playing on the playground), getting out the door in the morning for school or an after school activity on time, or getting stuck in front of the television (or tablet, phone, etc.).

Your child repeatedly uses too much force

Some examples include when rough housing with friends or siblings turns into biting, when pushing turns into shoving into the door, or when touch turns to tackle. In these situations your child’s level of alertness continues to accelerate (or level up) without registering it’s time to shift down.

Your child has frequent meltdowns

This could look like overreacting to small challenges or changes in the schedule, seaming to be out of control, or thrashing and throwing their body around. In these situations your child’s system is overloaded with sensory information, their cup runs over so to speak, and they can’t handle any more stimulation. Their reactions could be much greater than anticipated. You may think to yourself ‘that was the straw that broke the camel’s back’.

Your child has recurring social challenges

This could look like having a hard time playing with peers or sharing toys. Interacting with friends is hard, perhaps they misinterpret their friends behavior frequently or they miss social cues entirely. You many spend a lot of time playing referee between your child and other children their age.

Your child persistently has trouble with daily routines

This could look like wanting to horseplay or get wound up right before bedtime, having trouble falling asleep on a consistent basis, or struggling to wake up & get going in the morning, frequently seeming to have woken up on the wrong side of the bed. Other examples could be they get wound up after a bath or shower or have a hard time finishing meals because they struggle to stay seated at the table.

How are these challenges related to self regulation?

Well let’s back up to what we learned about self regulation. Efficient self regulation enables us to transition from one alert state to another seamlessly when the situation calls for it. When we have trouble transitioning from one state to the other, that is where the trouble lies. So why would one have trouble with self regulation?

  The number one reason your child could be having trouble with their self regulation is that they are processing sensory information inaccurately. 

For example, say your child frequently gets upset when they accidentally get bumped by a friend while playing. This could mean that they misinterpret the touch sensation as painful or dangerous, which naturally elicits the fight, flight, or freeze response.

Another example, say your child frequently uses too much force when they play with their siblings. In this situation their muscles may not be getting enough sensory information to determine how much pressure they are using. They simply are not aware of their own force.

One last example, say your child has a hard time interacting with peers. They seemingly ignore social cues from their friends. This could mean that they are distracted with other sensory input in the environment – the stiff tag on their shirt, the sound of people talking in the background, the smell of someone’s lunch.. There could be multiple distractions that your child is trying to process at the same time, thus missing their friend’s invitation to play or their friend asking them not to do something again.

When should you reach out for help?

There’s a good chance that if you are reading this post, some of these scenarios sound very familiar. Before you get carried away thinking that your child has self regulation challenges, I want to remind you that your child is not a robot.

All of us have trouble with self regulation from time to time. Some days our system gets thrown off track – we didn’t get enough sleep, we have a stressful deadline or event crop up, we are hungry.. It happens.

The red flag to look out for is when these challenges arise on a regular basis. When our inability to self regulate prevents us from being our best selves consistently, that is when you should reach out for professional help. We talk more about how to tell whether your child needs specialized help from an occupational therapist in our post “#1 Sign Your Child Needs OT Services” if you are interested in reading more.

Self regulation plays a vital role in our lives. Some of the most common signs your child could be struggling with self regulation include difficulties with transitions, repeatedly using too much force, frequent meltdowns, recurring social challenges, or persistently having trouble with daily routines.

More times than not, challenges with self regulation signal underlying challenges with sensory processing. Although it is guaranteed we will have trouble with regulation from time to time, when your child’s inability to self regulate becomes a persistent challenge you may need to reach out for help from a professional that has experience with self regulation & sensory processing.

We have a fantastic resource that I believe you will find very helpful –  “The Self Regulation Crash Course & Pattern Tracker.”  We developed this tool to help parents track their child’s regulation habits in order to identify patterns, which will uncover their child’s unique sensory preferences. If you are on the fence, wondering whether you should reach out to a therapist or not, I highly recommend you grab a copy. Click here for your copy of “The Self Regulation Crash Course & Pattern Tracker”

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