Self-regulation theory: What it can teach us about our parenting

In parenting we often feel like behaving one way, but choose not to. How do we do this? Here is a peek into self-regulation theory and how to use it for our parenting mindset.

Self-regulation theory: What it can teach us about our parenting

When raising tiny humans we often say no to our own desires.

  • It's 5:00 AM in the morning. We have zero desire to wake up. But we do, because our little one has decided that it's a good time to start the day.
  • It's the end of an exhausting day. We don't feel like role playing with our toddler's dolls, but we do, because it's a good opportunity to bond.
  • (You are free to shed a few tears when reading this example.) We've just had the day's coffee. We feel like going to the bathroom alone, but our baby is too eager to join us, so we say yes to her company.

Self-regulation is controlling one's behavior, emotions and thoughts for the sake of long-term goals.

Parenting puts us in text-book examples of self-regulation all the time. We feel like behaving one way, but we choose not to, because we care about the long-term relationship we have with our children.

Who else self-regulates? Well, basically all of us. When you feel like you want to have some cake but you skip, you self-regulate because you care about your long-term dietary goals. When you get mad at your boss but you don't slam the door on him, you self-regulate because you care about your career.

Self-regulation is a topic that has roots in psychology, neurobiology and behavioral sciences.

As a rough distinction, there is behavioral self-regulation and there is emotional self-regulation.

  • Behavioral self-regulation is when we feel one way but act another. This is our ability to redirect our behavior to something that fits our long-term values. Most of the everyday parenting decisions, including the examples above belong to behavioral self-regulation.
  • Emotional self-regulation is when we calm ourselves during strong emotions. This is our ability to control or be flexible with our spontaneous reactions. Most stressful moments in parenthood fall into this category: when we feel strong, challenging emotions but choose to not react to our children.

Self-regulation theory is the framework that explains self-regulation. It aims to answers the question: what are the steps by which we self-regulate?

According to social psychologist and one of the key influencers of the theory Roy Baumeister, there are four components of self-regulation:

  • Standards: What we think a good behavior is.
  • Motivation: Our eagerness to display that good behavior.
  • Monitoring: Us being aware of our actions and their circumstances.
  • Willpower: Our strength to resist temptations.

These four determine our self-regulatory activity at any given moment.

Is self-regulation a knowledge, a strength or a skill?

Several studies supported that self-regulation is a strength, because it demands willpower.

The most famous research on the topic found that self-regulation is a strength that runs on limited resources. You can think of it like muscle strength.

The research found that when our self-regulatory energy is depleted we are less willing to help others. How did they adjust self-regulatory energy? They simply gave participants sugary drinks to replenish their brain resources. Participants who refueled their brain were more willing to help others.

Now let's get back to our parenting and how self-regulation theory helps with our parenting mindset. Here are 3 ideas that we can walk away with:

1) Self-regulation requires self-care. We cannot self-regulate when we don't have enough to give. Self-regulation takes willpower. And willpower can be depleted. For us to be able to self-regulate we need to physically and mentally take good care of ourselves. This includes being rested, nourishing our body with good food and water, and being in a good overall mental state.

2) Self-regulation is a subconscious process. We don't put thought into monitoring our behavior in everyday settings. This means that our long-term values guide us on the go. In our parenting, it's important to settle within ourselves our long-term values. Journaling might help in coming up with these values and keeping ourselves in check.

3) Self-regulation helps with impulse control: Having a strong self-regulation muscle helps us be more in control of our immediate reactions to our children. If we have low impulse control we are prone to acting on strong emotions. Most heart breaks in a parent-child relationship occur in the heat of the moment. That's why self-regulation is one of the musts of a healthy parenting mindset.

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