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Simple Self-Regulation Strategies for Tough Moments 

Tips and tricks for kids and their caregivers.

I totally get how hectic life can be. I’ve been there and, honestly, I’m still there plenty. A big part of why I wrote my books was to pinpoint the most common parts of the day that I know feel most difficult for either myself or fellow parents, and offer simple-to-implement solutions. Below I target some of the most challenging times of the day from a self-regulation perspective, and offer simple-to-implement strategies utilizing the power of imagination, affirmation, and choice.

Morning routine: Picture Your Day Going Great

This can be done upon waking up in the morning. You can add a visual reminder of completing this strategy next to your child’s bed or as part of a visual schedule of morning routines, to assist in reminding them to complete this strategy. It can also be especially helpful as a preview before especially challenging/dysregulating events, such as going to the doctor/dentist or to unfamiliar places that may trigger anxiety, transitioning back to school after a long vacation, etc.

Directions: Close your eyes. Now, in your mind, go through the day. What do you anticipate happening—great things, OK things, and maybe more difficult things? Remind yourself there are things that may happen that you can't anticipate. Remind yourself that you can’t control every situation, but you can control how you think about it, and your reaction. Picture yourself happy, flexible, and confident.

Homework routine: Thought Box

This strategy is especially helpful when children are internally distracted (i.e., thinking about thoughts/ideas unrelated to what they are supposed to be doing). This strategy can be adjusted to other types of boxes, depending on the issue at hand. For example, I have worked with teachers who had students that experienced difficulty waiting to be called on and who would speak without waiting to be called on. She would cue them to place what they wanted to say into their thought boxes and hold it there until it was their turn to speak.

Directions: Close your eyes. Picture in your mind a special box where you’re going to place all of your distracting thoughts. What color is your box? Maybe it’s more than one color. Is it smooth, or rough? Is it sparkly, plain, or mesh? Does it have a pattern, shapes, or designs? Does it have a lock, or does it stay closed on its own? If it has a lock, what does it look like? What does it feel like? Once you have it decorated it (or not) in your mind, put all of those distracting thoughts inside the box. Then, close the lid tightly! If it has a lock, make sure to lock it. Now, you can open the box and come back to those distracting thoughts at another time when it’s OK to think about them, like free time at your house, walking home from school, etc.

Helping siblings get along: “Let’s Take Turns Choosing What to Do”

Less structured and open-ended play is a time when arguments tend to crop up between children. Providing kids with a concrete script for negotiating this type of play can assist in negotiating turn-taking and allow for improved navigation of peer interaction skills.

Directions: At the beginning of playing with a friend, whether it’s at school or at home, start off saying, “Let’s take turns choosing what to do." It’s OK if you don’t feel like doing this—and even if you feel like doing the opposite. (Maybe you have a super-awesome game that you want to play the whole time.) This will start off the play with your friend in a kind and fair way, and will make playing with friends a whole lot easier. It will show that you’re a kind and considerate friend who is also flexible. Repeating this throughout a playdate or during playtime at school will prevent arguments and allow everyone to get along.

Bedtime routine: The Journal in Your Mind

I have often found that children have difficulty falling asleep when they have a lot on their mind; this applies to adults as well. Beyond the physical act of journaling your ideas out on paper, it is a powerful and helpful tool to visualize drawing/writing out whatever is on one’s mind before bed. This can be extended to any time during the day, not just before going to sleep; for example, I have used this in clinical practice for students to jot out anything bothering them in their journal in their mind before beginning their work at designated times of the day, thus improving focus and regulation.

Directions: This is a personal journal in your mind where you can write or sketch down any thoughts that are bothering you and that may be keeping you awake. I’d like you to create the journal now. What color is the cover of your journal? What color are the pages? What are you using to write or draw with: A pencil? A pen? Or are you using a crayon, marker, or colored pencil? Now, draw or write anything on your mind that may be bothering you and keeping you awake (or awake later). Close the cover of the journal when you’re done; now those thoughts are gone and away, unless you open the journal and want to think about them another time.

All strategies are adapted from the book Self-Control to the Rescue: Superpowers to Help Kids Through the Tough Stuff in Everyday Life by Lauren Brukner.

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