We are social beings and socialising and building relationships is an important part of human life, particularly as a child. Playing and exploring with friends is a great way to learn and build confidence. There are lots of skills required for building relationships with others, but self-regulation is crucial for successful relationships. For example, regulating emotions when children feel excited or frustrated, learning to share, take turns, and win and lose during games. Self-regulation is the ability to understand and manage your arousal level, behaviour and reactions to your feelings and things happening around you.  

As a young child we learn to regulate our level of arousal and emotional control; if we become upset or frightened by new experiences, we seek out our parents/caregivers and they offer comfort and reassurance and the child learns that they can feel safe again. Babies are not born with the ability to self-regulate but when they are upset and comforted this starts the process of self-regulation and they will then learn how to self soothe; sucking their thumb or cuddling their favourite blanket. As a toddler these skills continue to develop but there are still challenges. They may be able to follow simple instructions but if a child has a toy they want, they may snatch, rather than waiting for their turn. As a child continues to grow they become more independent in controlling their own feelings and behaviour, this provides skills for building relationships with others. Being able to consistently regulate their own feelings and behaviour is a major task for a young child but once children start school they become more successful at self-regulating and this helps them to concentrate, build relationships, learn new things and learn to deal with difficult situations.  

Self-regulation stops us acting on our first impulses this is helpful in creating relationships as we respect the feelings of others. We might not say what we really think about someone to protect their feelings and because we have learnt that it is unkind. We learn social skills and cultural rules of how to interact. If you have good self-regulation you can be more independent and make good choices in terms of your behaviour. Children with sensory difficulties can find it challenging to self-regulate, as initially they will not be able to alter their behaviour or need for movement, until additional activities are put in place to alter their responses.  Depending on the individual child they may need an increased amount of sensory input or a decreased amount of sensory input to engage in their world appropriately. A child with sensory processing difficulties often relies on those around them to help them achieve a state of self-regulation.    

When children have a difficult time with self-regulation, we observe maladaptive behaviour or responses to the environment and sensory stimuli.  It is very important to identify these signals of self-regulation before jumping to conclusions that it is behaviourally driven. If a child has difficulties with self-regulation building relationships will be challenging. A child may become too excited during playtime become over aroused and be unable to follow the rules of the game that has been created and settle back in to work when returning to the classroom. They may become frustrated if they miss their turn and act on impulses and push a child over rather than thinking about the correct choice. They may snatch toys or say what comes in to their mind without thinking of the other child’s feelings. They may find the school environment uncomfortable due to difficulty processing sensory information noise, smells, lighting and already be working hard to regulate their central nervous system so may hide under the table. They may be anxious and have low self esteem and find it hard to integrate, leading to them to gravitating to the corners of the school yard. The child cannot control other peoples’ behaviour and if the other children do things that they do not like such as, being in close proximity, the only option may be for that child to avoid play environments. 

It is important for children to have positive relationships as they can have a positive impact on the child’s mental health and wellbeing, therefore learning to self-regulate is critical. There are lots of ways to help your child to self-regulate through calming and regulating activities to help maintain arousal levels, positive praise (when they are able to wait their turn etc.), clear rules and boundaries, model self-regulation, talk about emotions. If your child has difficulties with self-regulation and building relationships, they may benefit from attending clinical treatment as this helps to develop a social, communication, organisation, regulation and engagement skills.  

Written by 

Ruth Lamb