What’s Normal Development and What’s Not: Regulation

Psychological health is measured in terms of balance: it’s a matter of staying within the normal range of emotional reactions to life’s situations. So how does the brain of a normally functioning person maintain this delicate balance? What protects us from sliding off into a ditch every time we hit a bump in the road? It’s something called regulation.

People who can stay regulated have these three basic abilities:

  1. The ability to maintain an emotionally balanced state.
  2. The ability to be solid enough emotionally that they aren’t easily knocked off balance.
  3. When they are knocked off balance, the ability to find their way back to emotional stability within a reasonable amount of time.

This ability for regulating our emotions and reactions to life’s situations develops in three stages:

  1. Other-regulation (birth to two years of age): At this stage, a child is not able to self-regulate. He must have another person (mother, father, caregiver) to do the regulating for him.
  2. Co-regulation (two years old to late teens): During this phase, your child knows how to regulate herself but still needs another person to help her regain her balance when thrown off-kilter.
  3. Self-regulation (usually not fully developed until late teen years or young adulthood): That’s right, we don’t full develop this skill until the late teen years. At this stage, teens know how to self-regulate andcan maintain emotional balance, except in extremely intense situations where it would be normal for anyone to need another person’s assistance.

How to Help Your Child Develop Self-Regulation

The following things help children develop the ability to regulate their emotions:

  • An atmosphere of failure-free playfulness
  • An atmosphere of joyfulness
  • Physical activity, especially of the unstructured kind
  • Pervasive, regular, daily routines
  • Opportunities to relate with other human beings (not just peers)
  • Age-appropriate challenges

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