Behavior Regulation: The Key to It All

Behavior regulation refers to our ability to be mindful of our emotional state and react functionally appropriately. Our emotional state depends on any possible feeling we may have; happy, depressed, comfortable, stressed, nervous, apprehensive, excited, or satisfied. Being mindful of our feelings means recognizing how we feel in any given moment or situation. The term functionally appropriate means that our behavior, a.k.a our behavior response to our emotions, is socially relevant and helps us to express our needs or feelings to others.


Here is an example of behavior regulation in action: I am in a hurry to get somewhere. I've stopped at a coffee shop for a little pick-me-up, ordered, and now I'm impatiently waiting. Finally, the barista called out my name. My coffee is ready! When they confirm my "double tall whole-milk latte," my heart drops. I am lactose intolerant and know that two shots of coffee will make my heart palpitate. Alas, remaking the drink will likely cause me to be late.


At this moment, my behavior regulation skills kick in. I notice my stress response heightening, perhaps my body is becoming stiffer, and I unconsciously start to think of numerous ways to respond; reorder the drink, leave the coffee shop, and inquire as to why it's incorrect. Inside I may be spinning, but on the outside, I decided to ask the barista to remake the drink politely. Once I have my single almond milk latte, I may get over the whole situation and let it linger, but I do successfully keep it together. I found a functionally appropriate response that got me what was wanted (a new latte) by asking politely for the drink to be remade.


Typically adults possess relatively strong behavior regulation skills. We've learned from everyday interactions that certain behaviors bring about our desired results. For example, behaviors such as asking politely, being patient, and waiting in line, are all behaviors we've learned to use in situations like our coffee shop example. These behaviors directly result from our behavior regulation skills, which allow us to act functionally and appropriately.


Our children, especially those diagnosed with exceptionalities or social/emotional/behavioral challenges, can often have a tough time regulating behavior because behavior regulation skills come with maturity, cognitive development, executive functioning skills, and our personalities. Some children have a much easier time dealing with stressful situations than others due to their behavior regulation skills.


Let's look at the example of a toddler who doesn't get what they want. A typically developing toddler has zero-to-no behavior regulation skills simply because of where they are developmental. Toddlers are still learning to manage their feelings and thoughts and cannot stop and process anxiety-provoking situations. The simple act of being told "no," may cause a toddler to melt down. Older children may also lack these behavior regulation skills. Often children with social/emotional/behavioral needs will have difficulty regulating. They may become completely overwhelmed with change, new experiences, loud noises, or whatever else is unsettling to them. Older children who lack behavior regulation skills may melt down just like toddlers.


The more mindful we are regarding our child's behavior regulation skills, the more effectively we can help them in triggering situations. Let's use our coffee shop example again. Let's pretend we are now with our 13-year-old child and dealing with that same coffee shop experience; we are running late and waiting for our drink. As parents, we know our child is easily stressed out, especially when running late. Perhaps we also know that our child tends to react more assertively when making a mistake.


If that's the case, we may give our son or daughter some calming reminders that they won't be late. We may also remind them that when the coffee shop is busy, they often make mistakes with orders but are always willing to remake a drink. As shown in this example, giving reminders and preemptively giving warnings are excellent ways to help encourage and promote behavior regulation.


Many practical strategies can help our kiddos build strong behavior regulation skills. Additionally, we must be aware of our child's baseline skill set. Do they melt down when you tell them "no"? Are they unable to follow directions in loud, busy environments? Does our child seem to be unable to follow directions after dinner? These are the types of questions we can ask ourselves to understand our child's regulation levels better.


Behavior regulation is at the core of our behavior; it's our behavior. And building these skills is crucial to our daily living. In an upcoming article, we will talk about how to promote behavior regulation!