It’s Self-Regulation, not Self-Control

In Dr. Stuart Shanker’s recent book, Self-Reg: How to Help Your Child (and You) Break the Stress Cycle and Successfully Engage with Life, he presents parents and caregivers with a new way of looking at behavior challenges in some children. Often, it’s about self-regulation, not self-control.

We’ve all been there. Your kid is running around with seemingly endless energy; nothing we say seems to help the situation. We get frustrated. We might insist that the child control himself a bit better. The reality is that some kids are not equipped to simply control their behavior. They lack the ability to respond to the request to “control” themselves. What they need is a process – a process that allows them to digest their surroundings, identify stressors, and how they fit into the social world around them. They need to understand the concepts of self-regulation. 

Self-Control vs. Self-Regulation

What’s the difference? Self-Control is all about the moment and the individual. Self-Regulation is about interfacing with the word around us. Really, we are talking about proactive vs. reactive strategies. Dr. Stuart Shanker, a distinguished research professor of Philosophy and Psychology at York University in Toronto, and author of Self-Reg: How to Help Your Child (and You) Break the Stress Cycle and Successfully Engage with Life, explains the difference this way:

There is a profound difference between self-regulation and self-control. Self-control is about inhibiting strong impulses; self-regulation, reducing the frequency and intensity of strong impulses by managing stress-load and recovery. In fact, self-regulation is what makes self-control possible, or, in many cases, unnecessary. The reason lies deep inside the brain.

– Dr. Stuart Shanker

Dr. Shanker approaches self-regulation through the five domains of childhood development: biological, emotional, cognitive, social, and prosocial. According to Dr. Shanker, understanding how these developmental areas overlap and mesh allows for a deeper awareness of what is happening in our kids’ minds. We then can aid them in building a greater sense of self-awareness and empathy.

Dr. Stuart Shanker, author, psychologist, and professor

Self-regulation is less about consequences for poor behavioral choices particularly when they are not in a head space to digest them. When a child is wound up and full of energy, the limbic system (survival brain), the part of the brain responsible for emotion and drive, is directing the show. Trying to address challenging actions when the limbic system is in charge is like telling a first-time skydiver to relax. From Dr. Shanker:

…children are only able to develop and use “cognitive competencies” if their arousal has been reduced; and we accomplish this by identifying and reducing their stressors and soothing rather than badgering the child when he is hyper-aroused. In other words, by practicing Self-Reg. What Self-Reg teaches a child is a foundational set of skills: not just how to deal with a deluge when it happens, but more important, how to prevent the deluge in the first place, by recognizing when they are becoming over-stressed and why, and what to do about it.

– Dr. Shanker

This is good science, but it also makes good sense. Think about the last time you were emotionally worked up. Where you receptive to criticism or even constructive advice? Of course not. So why are we expecting the same response from our children? Giving our kids the tools to be self-aware allows for self regulation, and in turn, makes self-control possible.

Children’s entertainer, Raffi, has a great song about self-regulation. It’s available as a free download over at Dr. Shanker’s website.


Take a look at Dr. Shanker’s book, released this past June. It contains a wealth of information for positive, proactive parenting and would be a welcome addition to any library.

Self-Reg banner image © Stuart Shanker and The Mehrit Centre

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