Learning to self-soothe is part of being human. Self-soothing techniques help you regulate your physical and emotional state after uncomfortable experiences such as stress, trauma, or upset.
We all progress through developmental phases of self-soothing, also called emotional regulation or “self-regulation”. Children go through a process of learning different techniques both on their own and with the help of trusted adults. Depending on the child, he or she might have unique preferences for self-soothing that change and adapt over time.
This process can look different for children with behavioral challenges or diagnoses. As a parent, you want to help your child as best you can– especially when they may react differently to outside stimuli and need extra guidance when regulating themselves in the real world.
Today, there are resources for families looking to support their children in managing their sensory systems, including those we offer at Bloom.
Below we explore three simple techniques for self-regulation and co-regulation.
What is Self-Regulation?
Self-regulation is your ability to handle stress and manage your emotions and behaviors in effective ways. Typically, how a child learns to deal with mild to severe triggers is what they build upon throughout the rest of development.
Many forms of self-regulation can be learned, improved, and changed. Awareness and practice, combined with paying attention to the whole person instead of one behavior, can encourage better self-regulation methods.
What is Co-Regulation?
Babies and toddlers first learn how to self-soothe through co-regulation and modeling. Naturally, infants rely on external caregivers to soothe and make sure basic needs are met.
If your toddler scrapes their knee, they cry and look to you for relief and reassurance that they’re going to be okay. You console them with attention, a hug, and carefully apply a bandaid. This is an example of co-regulation.
As children grow, co-regulation is helpful for both the upset child and the caregiver learning how to encourage self-regulation. Gradually, your child learns it’s okay to fall down when playing sometimes. Bruises and scrapes hurt for a little bit, but they learn how to bandage themselves and rest their injury until they’re ready to go back and play.
Why do Children Struggle to Soothe Themselves?
Some children find self-soothing difficult because they are still developing key mental processes. Executive function is the brain’s processes that allow us to remember, plan, focus, learn, and practice self-control.
Different kids develop this set of skills at different rates. Children who experience ADHD, ADD, or ASD may have problems with executive function, meaning it can take extra time for them to learn how to control their impulses and properly soothe themselves.
If this sounds like your child, it’s important to be patient, kind, and attentive to their unique needs for regulation. Accept your child as they are and work toward building stronger skills as they develop at their own pace. Never try to “force” them to be where you think they should be.
Even though you don’t want to overbear your child to meet learning expectations, it can be helpful to know the baseline developmental markers at different ages.
You don’t have to be perfect. Neither does your child. Knowing age-appropriate techniques for self-regulation can make a positive difference.
Infants: Babies often self-soothe by looking away from distressing situations, crying, or sucking on fingers and toes. Infants require high levels of co-regulation since they are new to the world and learning to respond to their environment.
Toddlers: Toddlers begin to practice self-regulation on their own. They may run to guardians for comfort, throw tantrums when overwhelmed, flee from scary situations, make strategic decisions based on reward vs punishment, and express their feelings through facial expressions, gestures, and words.
Early education: Preschool-aged children have a growing awareness of their feelings and the feelings of others. To self-soothe, they might take deep breaths, dance or jump, talk to themselves or an adult, ask for what they want, come up with solutions to simple problems, or use imaginative play to explore the potential outcome of scenarios.
- Elementary age: Children of elementary age tend to self-soothe through behavior and using physical objects. This includes nail-biting, fidgeting with clothing, being hyperactive in school or at home, hair twirling, group play, attempts at conflict resolution, or cuddling a comfort item like a blanket or teddy bear.
- Adolescence: Teens experience a large range of complex emotions as well as hormonal changes and a spike in critical thinking. Teenage self-soothing techniques might include asking difficult questions, expressing their emotions through hobbies or physical appearance, putting their energy toward a goal or personal pursuit, acting out at home, or confiding in their social circles.
Many parents need help working with their children in emotional regulation. At Bloom, we give families the resources they need to understand and accept each other where they’re at. Watch the first video of our program here.
You can encourage healthy self-soothing practices by modeling them yourself or practicing them with your child. Here are three helpful techniques you and your kids can do together.
1. Standing and Spreading Toes
“Grounding” is one common soothing technique. In this case, stand with your feet flat. Spread your toes apart as wide as you can and push them into the floor, feeling your body weight sink into the ground supporting you. This can be done with shoes, socks, or barefoot.
2. Steeple Hands
Our hands are something we associate with immediate control. To focus when our surroundings feel overwhelming, “steeple hands” help self-soothe.
Bring the pads of your fingers from both hands together, forming a “steeple” or professor gesture. You can focus on light pressure or gentle touch, then release. Do this for the duration you feel anxious, worried, or overwhelmed.
3. Ping Shuai Gong Exercises
Ping Shuai Gong is a simple Taiwanese Qi Gong exercise that is said to release energy through rhythmic swinging of the arms and hands.
This is a dynamic technique that engages the upper body and calms the nervous system. It provides a gentle stretch, mild cardio, and increased blood circulation. People of most physical abilities can do it anywhere, at any time. Watch a quick tutorial here.
The Bloom Community: Here to Support Your Journey
No matter what phase of development your child is in, you can begin encouraging self-soothing techniques that will equip them for life.
At Bloom, we know the challenges parents face when navigating their child’s various stages of self-control. It can be confusing, sometimes frustrating, and ever-changing.
Understanding the tools, information, and special attention your child needs is one way to minimize chaos. After all, emotional regulation allows the whole family to be more present and at peace.Join the Bloom membership today to get more resources that help parents and children who want extra help self-regulating.