How to Develop and Practice Self-Regulation

Woman with her eyes closed in the desert

Tony Anderson / Getty Images

Self-regulation can be defined in various ways. In the most basic sense, it involves controlling one's behavior, emotions, and thoughts in the pursuit of long-term goals. More specifically, emotional self-regulation refers to the ability to manage disruptive emotions and impulses.

In other words, to think before acting. It also reflects the ability to cheer yourself up after disappointments and to act in a way consistent with your deepest held values.

Development of Self-Regulation

Your ability to self-regulate as an adult has roots in your development during childhood. Learning how to self-regulate is an important skill that children learn both for emotional maturity and later social connections.

In an ideal situation, a toddler who throws tantrums grows into a child who learns how to tolerate uncomfortable feelings without throwing a fit and later into an adult who is able to control impulses to act based on uncomfortable feelings.

In essence, maturity reflects the ability to face emotional, social, and cognitive threats in the environment with patience and thoughtfulness. If this description reminds you of mindfulness, that's no accident—mindfulness does indeed relate to the ability to self-regulate.

Why Self-Regulation is Important

Self-regulation involves taking a pause between a feeling and an action—taking the time to think things through, make a plan, wait patiently. Children often struggle with these behaviors, and adults may as well.

It's easy to see how a lack of self-regulation will cause problems in life. A child who yells or hits other children out of frustration will not be popular among peers and may face reprimands at school.

An adult with poor self-regulation skills may lack self-confidence and self-esteem and have trouble handling stress and frustration. Often, this might be expressed in terms of anger or anxiety, and in more severe cases, this individual may be diagnosed with a mental disorder.

Self-regulation is also important in that it allows you to act in accordance with your deeply held values or social conscience and to express yourself appropriately. If you value academic achievement, it will allow you to study instead of slack off before a test. If you value helping others, it will allow you to help a coworker with a project, even if you are on a tight deadline yourself.

In its most basic form, self-regulation allows us to bounce back from failure while also staying calm under pressure.

Common Self-Regulation Problems

How do problems with self-regulation develop? It could start early; as an infant being neglected. A child who does not feel safe and secure, or who is unsure whether his or her needs will be met, may have trouble soothing and self-regulating.

Later, a child, teen, or adult may struggle with self-regulation, either because this ability was not developed during childhood, or because of a lack of strategies for managing difficult feelings. When left unchecked, over time this could lead to more serious issues such as mental health disorders and risky behaviors such as substance abuse.

Effective Strategies for Self-Regulation

If self-regulation is so important, why were most of us never taught strategies for using this skill? Most often, parents, teachers, and other adults expect that children will "grow out of" the tantrum phase. While this is true for the most part, all children and adults can benefit from learning concrete strategies for self-regulation.


According to Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), mindfulness is "the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgementally."

By engaging in skills such as focused breathing and gratitude, mindfulness enables us to put some space between ourselves and our reactions, leading to better focus and feelings of calmness and relaxation.

In a 2019 review of 27 research studies, mindfulness was shown to improve attention, which in turn helped to regulate negative emotions and executive functioning (higher-order thinking).

Cognitive Reappraisal

Cognitive reappraisal or cognitive reframing is another strategy that can be used to improve self-regulation abilities. This strategy involves changing your thought patterns. Specifically, cognitive reappraisal involves reinterpreting a situation in order to change your emotional response to it.

For example, imagine a friend did not return your calls or texts for several days. Rather than thinking that this reflected something about yourself, such as "my friend hates me," you might instead think, "my friend must be really busy." Research has shown that using cognitive reappraisal in everyday life is related to experiencing more positive and fewer negative emotions.

In a 2016 study examining the link between self-regulation strategies (i.e., mindfulness, cognitive reappraisal, and emotion suppression) and emotional well-being, researchers found cognitive reappraisal to be associated with daily positive emotions, including feelings of enthusiasm, happiness, satisfaction, and excitement.

Some other useful strategies for self-regulation include acceptance and problem-solving. In contrast, unhelpful strategies that people sometimes use include avoidance, distraction, suppression, and worrying.

Qualities of Self-Regulators

The benefits of self-regulation are numerous. In general, people who are adept at self-regulating tend to possess the following abilities:

  • Acting in accordance with their values
  • Calming themselves when upset
  • Cheering themselves when feeling down
  • Maintaining open communication
  • Persisting through difficult times
  • Putting forth their best effort
  • Remaining flexible and adapting to situations
  • Seeing the good in others
  • Staying clear about their intentions
  • Taking control of situations when necessary
  • Viewing challenges as opportunities

Putting Self-Regulation Into Practice

You are probably thinking that it sounds wonderful to be good at self-regulating, but you still don't know how to improve your skills.

In children, parents can help develop self-regulation through routines (e.g., set certain mealtimes, have a set of behaviors for each activity). Routines help children learn what to expect, which makes it easier for them to feel comfortable. When children act in ways that don't demonstrate self-regulation, ignore their requests, such as by making them wait if they interrupt a conversation.

As an adult, the first step to practice self-regulation is to recognize that everyone has a choice in how to react to situations. While you may feel like life has dealt you a bad hand, it's not the hand you are dealt, but how you react to it that matters most. How exactly do you learn this skill of self-regulation?

Recognize that in every situation you have three options: approach, avoidance, and attack. While it may feel as though your choice of behavior is out of your control, it's not. Your feelings may sway you more toward one path, but you are more than those feelings.

The second step is to become aware of your transient feelings. Do you feel like running away from a difficult situation? Do you feel like lashing out in anger at someone who has hurt you? Monitor your body to get clues about how you are feeling if it is not immediately obvious to you. For example, a rapidly increasing heart may be a sign that you are entering a state of rage or a panic attack.

Start to restore balance by focusing on your deeply held values, rather than those transient emotions. See beyond that discomfort at the moment to the larger picture. Then, act in a way that aligns with self-regulation.

A Word From Verywell

Once you've learned this delicate balancing act, you will begin to self-regulate more often, and it will become a way of life for you. Developing self-regulation skills will improve your resilience and ability to face difficult circumstances in life.

However, if you find you are unable to teach yourself to self-regulate, consider visiting a mental health professional. The time with a trained therapist may be useful to implement specific strategies and new skills for your situation. Therapy can also be a great place to practice those skills for use in your everyday life.

Was this page helpful?
3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Spratt EG, Friedenberg SL, Swenson CC, et al. The Effects of Early Neglect on Cognitive, Language, and Behavioral Functioning in Childhood. Psychology. 2012;3(2):175-182. doi:10.4236/psych.2012.32026

  2. Leyland A, Rowse G, Emerson L-M. Experimental effects of mindfulness inductions on self-regulation: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Emotion. 2019;19(1):108-122. doi:10.1037/emo0000425

  3. Brockman R, Ciarrochi J, Parker P, Kashdan T. Emotion regulation strategies in daily life: mindfulness, cognitive reappraisal and emotion suppression. Cogn Behav Ther. 2017;46(2):91-113. doi:10.1080/16506073.2016.1218926

Additional Reading