July 12, 2024

Self-regulation refers to the ability to control your behavior and manage your thoughts and emotions in appropriate ways. It’s why you go to school or work even though you don’t always feel like it, or why you don’t eat pizza for every meal.

Self-regulation typically begins with brain development between age 3 and age 7. However, certain neurodevelopmental disorders like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can lead to challenges with self-regulation. Kids can struggle when routines are disrupted, while chronic stress in adults can interfere with self-regulation.

This article will help you to learn more about what self-regulation is and how to strengthen this important skill.

The Good Brigade / Getty Images

What Is Self-Regulation?

Self-regulation involves being aware of your behavior and how it can help you to reach your goals. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines self-regulation as “the control of one’s behavior through self-monitoring, self-evaluation, and self-reinforcement.”

People who develop self-regulation skills are able to assess whether their behavior is appropriate and can redirect themselves as needed.

Self-Regulation vs. Self-Control

While self-regulation may sound a lot like self-control, the two are defined differently. Self-control is about controlling and inhibiting impulses. Self-regulation, meanwhile, is a broader term that refers to the ways people steer their behavior in order to achieve particular goals.

Some models of self-control consider its role in short-term responses, while self-regulation is more of an overarching strategy for achieving and maintaining these goals. Self-control is a day-in, day-out part of self-regulation.

You may want to be healthy and fit, for example, and self-regulation is what sets up the framework so that you routinely choose more fruits and vegetables in your diet. Self-control is what keeps you from eating more chocolate on a specific occasion or skipping a workout on any given day.

Why Self-Regulation Is Important

Self-regulation helps people to handle stress and conflict while strengthening relationships and overall well-being.


Children often have the impulse to lash out physically when they’re angry or upset—and sometimes adults do, too. Self-regulation helps us control those impulses and act in more appropriate ways. And being able to calm back down has physical effects, like slowing a pounding heart.


If a person is upset, sad, angry, or excited, self-regulation helps them calm down, regulate their feelings, and then behave in acceptable and productive ways. It also helps control emotions so that they are not overwhelming.


Self-regulation is necessary in order to learn and perform, in school or on the job. It helps people sit still at a desk, listen to what needs to be done, and refocus after completing a task.


Self-regulation allows people to behave in socially acceptable ways and build relationships by not letting strong emotions or impulses dictate their behavior.

Examples of Self-Regulation

At its most basic level, self-regulation is being able to manage your emotions and behaviors in order to function appropriately in everyday life. Examples of self-regulation include:

  • Being able to handle intense emotions like frustration, disappointment, or embarrassment
  • Being able to calm down after something exciting has happened
  • Refocusing attention after finishing one task and starting another
  • Controlling impulses
  • Behaving appropriately and getting along with other people

Causes of Self-Regulation Problems

Self-regulation failure is common and both the causes and the consequences can be fairly trivial. One study looked at a number of self-regulation goals (healthy eating, saving money, staying calm) and found that in the preceding 24 hours, people experienced failure on about half of the five goals they said, on average, they were trying to meet.

Some setbacks are linked to confidence in the ability to self-regulate, or a specific set of circumstances or stressors. Others can be more chronic and serious. A history of trauma is often a part of self-regulation failure. So are other diagnoses including:

In other cases, an impulse control disorder (like oppositional defiant disorder, or ODD) may be at play. This is a common diagnosis in kids and is often co-occurring in those with ADHD. Other conditions that can contribute to problems with self-regulation include:

Researchers continue to explore environmental, genetic, and developmental factors that can contribute to problems with self-regulation.

How to Improve Self-Regulation

Like many coping skills, self-regulation can be strengthened and improved. However, what works for one person may not work for another, so feel free to try different approaches.


Self-awareness is being aware of one’s own emotions, behaviors, and thoughts. Being self-aware will help you understand your motivations and behavior choices.

Research suggests that intentional self-awareness programs with young children boost their capacity for self-regulating emotions, attention, and behaviors. One study found that young children exposed to yoga even used more language that reflected awareness of self-regulation skills.


Mindfulness is a way of thinking that involves staying in the present moment and being aware of your environment, your thoughts, and how your body feels. Practicing mindfulness supports self-regulation by encouraging you to slow down and behave in a more conscious way.

A review of 18 studies in children across five countries found support for using mindfulness techniques to improve self-regulation and limit emotional and behavioral challenges.

Stress Management

Chronic stress can cause mood swings and difficulty concentrating which in turn can interfere with your ability to self-regulate. You can help get stress under control with stress management techniques that include:

One study of healthcare providers focused on how chronic stress affected a part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, which plays a key role in self-regulation. Exercise, a healthy diet, and improved work-life balance improved their symptoms.


Self-regulation is an essential skill for physical, social, emotional, and mental well-being. Poor self-regulation can impact your life in detrimental ways, potentially causing problems at work or school and keeping you from developing healthy relationships.

It doesn’t always come easily to people, but techniques like self-awareness, mindfulness practices, and stress reduction can help you develop and strengthen your self-regulation abilities. If you find yourself struggling with self-regulation, you may find it helpful to talk to a psychotherapist. They can help you develop coping skills and tools that are specific to your needs.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *