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Emotional self-regulation can be the difference between a minor frustration and a full screaming meltdown.

Why is it so hard for some children to self-regulate? How on earth are parents supposed to teach their children to cope with everyday frustrations and disappointments?

Where do we even start to build emotional self-regulation?

It starts with the pre-frontal cortex, a part of the brain that continues to grow until your child is at least 25 years old. Let’s get acquainted:

emotional self-regulation

The power behind emotional self-regulation: Executive Functioning Skills

In real life, the prefrontal cortex has several different parts, and is responsible for most of what psychologists call “executive functioning skills.” Executive functioning is basically the ability to plan, organize and complete tasks. The prefrontal cortex supports those executive functioning skills.

As we get older, our prefrontal cortex matures, so do our executive functioning skills (usually.) The result is better overall control of our behaviour, including the ability to regulate our emotions.

What’s the Connection between Executive Functioning Skills and Emotional Self-Regulation?

Our executive functioning skills, supported by the pre-frontal cortex, keep us out of trouble.

We can use them to plan ahead, come up with creative solutions, and make educated guesses.

When we start to get irritated, we can use executive functioning skills to calm ourselves down. We can look on the bright side, think of a solution, put it in perspective, and that’s just for a start.

The prefrontal cortex works best when we are calm. We can laugh at jokes, make plans for the future, look at things from someone else’s point of view.

The Effects of Stress on Executive Functioning Skills and the Prefrontal Cortex

Stress is like an alarm bell ringing in the body. Stress can be triggered by pain, fatigue, hunger, worry, illness, noise, or other sensory overload. When we are stressed, the pre-frontal cortex is less active. Other parts of the brain, including the amygdala, get more involved. The body reacts by becoming more alert. Our heart rate speeds up. Our senses are sharper.

Stress affects thinking too. We find it harder to block out distractions, and we struggle to use our executive functioning skills to deal with the problems at hand.


Our stress reaction is useful when we need instant adrenaline and a big reaction. We can quickly hide, freeze, or attack. Unfortunately, this reaction isn’t usually the most helpful when we are dealing with smaller problems, like lost keys, a child who won’t nap, or a sandwich dropped on the ground.

Emotional self-regulation helps us recognize this stress reaction, and choose activities that turn off that “alarm” within.

What’s next?

There is so much more to say about this topic, but here’s something to get you and your child started. I’ve created a 6-page activity book for you to explore with your child. Grab some markers, and go check it out!

emotional self-regulation