Help Infants Learn Self Regulation Through Relationships

When babies are born, they have very little ability to regulate themselves. The development of self-control occurs within the context of the infant-caregiver relationship. Babies are almost entirely dependent upon their parents or primary caregivers to identify and respond to their ever-changing needs. One of the most important tasks of parenting during a child’s early years is the task of managing our children’s emotions, needs, and impulses when they do not have the capacity to do it themselves.

Over time, responding to babies’ needs in a responsive and consistent manner helps them to learn that the feelings of distress they are having are not permanent. They learn that these feelings do pass. They also learn that there are both external and internal ways to manage these feelings so that they do not overwhelm them. They begin to develop within themselves the capacity to take care of their feelings and impulses, and to feel secure in knowing that their needs will be met.

Individual Differences and Self-Regulation

From the moment they are born, infants are presented with the challenging task of sensory integration in their new, expansive world. Sights, sounds, lights, hunger, fatigue, movement, and smell are just some of the sensations that the young infant is attempting to organize and react to on a continual basis.

Differences in how children perceive and respond to sensory information can impact how they respond to the world around them. It can also impact the development of self-control. For example, a child who is sensitive to sound may become easily overwhelmed in a loud classroom or home environment. His caregivers may notice him hitting or pushing his friends, or having trouble focusing and paying attention on days when the noise level is higher than usual.

Finding ways to support a child’s unique sensory needs can help him or her to regain or maintain a sense of self-control and feel more successful and self-confident. In this case, what might help is lowering the volume of the class or providing a “quiet space” for the child to go when things become over stimulating. Observing and paying attention to your child’s unique ways of perceiving, organizing, and responding to his or her surroundings can provide you with important and valuable clues. You can learn how to help your child negotiate her growing skills of self-regulation.


Brazelton, T.B. (1992) Touchpoints: Your Child’s Emotional and Behavioral Development, Development, Birth to 3—The Essential Reference for the Early Years. Cambridge, MA. Perseus Books.

Greenspan, S. & Wieder, S. (1993) Regulatory Disorders. In Zeanah, C. (Ed.), The Handbook of Infant Mental Health (pp. 280–290). New York: Guilford Press.

Lerner, C. et al. (2000) Learning & Growing Together: Understanding Your Child’s Development. Washington D.C.: ZERO TO THREE Press.

Williamson, G.G. and Anzalone, M.E. (2001)Sensory Integration and Self-Regulation in Infants and Toddlers: Helping Very Young Children Interact With Their Environment. Washington D.C.: ZERO TO THREE Press.



Attachment and Exploration: The Toddler Years

As your young infant grows and becomes more mobile, a wonderful and complex event takes place—the world begins to expand immeasurably. No longer is your baby confined to spaces in which she could only scoot, crawl, or wiggle! As she masters her balance and learns to walk, she transforms into a little explorer. Much to your chagrin, she hurries off to investigate new areas that were once out of her reach. And although you may try desperately to contain your toddler’s enthusiasm, making attempts to keep things out of reach or out of sight, your little one is driven to continue her search and discovery mission!

You may have witnessed your toddler rushing from place to place, laughing and smiling, beaming with confidence, when suddenly, something unexpected happens: A new neighbor walks in, a dog barks from across the street, a door slams loudly. Within moments, your confident explorer is rushing to your side, seeking reassurance and comfort. This wide-open world is thrilling, yet it is also filled with seemingly endless threats and dangers when viewed through the eyes and mind of the young toddler.

In this new, larger world, your toddler’s attachment relationships continue to assert their significance. The willingness to explore his environment, to feel safe and reassured that someone will be there when scared and uncertain, is rooted in the expectations that your young child developed as an infant through attachment.

A secure attachment provides the “home base” from which a child ventures out and explores new environments. This secure base enables the toddler to feel supported, confident, and ready to explore. And, when she becomes scared or uncertain, she knows that she can return to her caregiver where she will receive the warmth and support she needs in order to feel safe, competent, and ready to go out in the world again! Over time, the young child begins to internalize the support and nurturance she receives from this relationship. She develops a sense of competence and an ability to manage her own worries and fears when her parents, her “secure base,” are not immediately available

Bowlby, John (1956) “The growth of independence in the young child.” Royal Society of Health Journal, 76, 587-591.

Bowlby, John (1988) A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development. London: Routledge.

Lieberman, Alicia (1993) The Emotional Life of the Toddler. New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc.

Positive Discipline and Guidance for Children

Practicing consistent, positive discipline is one of the most important ways you can support your child’s healthy development. The goal of positive discipline is to guide your child to behave in socially acceptable ways. Positive discipline is crucial because it promotes your child’s self-control, teaches him to take responsibility for his actions, and helps him make thoughtful choices about how he treats himself and others.

You can guide your child in many ways. You can model good behavior, encourage and support good behavior, and set consistent limits. As a parent, you model appropriate behavior in the way that you talk to and treat your child.

It’s also important to know how much you can expect from your child. Sometimes adult expectations exceed a child’s capability. Thus, the more you know about children’s developmental milestones, the better you’ll be able to guide your child successfully through life.

Positive Discipline and Temperament

Understanding your child’s temperament (individual differences in emotional and behavioral processes, which emerge early in development) is an essential part of creating a strong parent-child bond. It is also a key indicator of how your child will respond to your guidance and the types of discipline that will be most effective for him. Observe your child’s behaviors, such as level of activity, emotional intensity, social habits, adaptability, and persistence. Then you can begin to anticipate which situations may be easy or more difficult.

Children typically have one of these types of temperament:

Easy or flexible: These children are generally calm, happy, and adaptable. They tend to have regular sleeping and eating habits. A child with this type of temperament may not feel the need to talk about emotions often, so parents should set aside time to do this daily.

Difficult, active, or feisty: These children are often fussy, high-strung, and intense. They have irregular sleeping and eating habits, are fearful of new people and situations, and are easily upset by noise and commotion. Parents should have a play area where these children can get out their stored up energy and frustrations.

Slow to warm up or cautious: These children are typically inactive and fussy, and tend to withdraw or to react negatively to new situations. Their reactions, though, gradually become more positive with continuous exposure. Stick with a consistent routine along with giving your child ample time to become comfortable with new situations.

Once your child’s temperament is understood, it is important for you to be in tune with your own. Sometimes situations may arise when your child’s and your temperaments clash. Try to organize the environment so that “goodness of fit” happens when you set your child up for success by organizing the environment to fit his temperament. To achieve a good fit between you and your child, it is important to:

  • Be aware of your child’s temperament and respect his or her uniqueness.
  • Communicate with your child by making points clear and simple.
  • Listen to your child; hear his or her point of view.
  • Set limits to help your child develop self-control.
  • Be a good role model.

Positive Discipline and Atypical Child Development

Some children need extra support and guidance from their caregivers. Like children who are developing typically, children with special needs require guidance that is positive and respectful. Keep in mind that it may take time to understand your child’s unique needs with regard to discipline. With time and patience, you’ll begin to understand how to set boundaries for and support the needs of your child.

Children with Down syndrome: Some children with Down syndrome tend to have short attention spans and are easily distracted. They may also have trouble with hearing or speech. These all can affect their behavior. Using positive reinforcement and modeling appropriate interactions are helpful methods to use. This is because children with Down syndrome seek out praise and encouragement from adults.

Children with autism: Children with autism may struggle with social interactions. For example, they may be uncomfortable with physical contact, fear change, avoid eye contact, and have delays in language and communication skills. Make sure your child is aware of any changes that may occur during the day and talk through the fears your child may have. Being a positive and flexible parent will help both you and your child.

Children with aggression: Children with anger and aggression may tend to be easily frustrated, destructive, or explosive. They may scream a lot, have quick changes in moods, and demand attention. If you see these behaviors in your child, you may want to consult with your family doctor. It is important for you to make it clear that hitting, kicking, and pushing will not be tolerated. Non-hurtful discipline, such as using time-outs, is considered by many to be effective. Keep time-outs short and be positive when they are over. Make sure to praise your child when he or she maintains control.

Positive Discipline and Parenting Styles

People use or adapt to various parenting styles. It is common to fall in the middle, showing aspects of more than one style. You may also find yourself changing styles, depending on the experience, age, and maturity of your child. It is important to keep in mind that a positive and respectful approach can help you both.

The major parenting styles fall into four groups:

  • Authoritarian
  • Neglectful
  • Permissive
  • Authoritative-democratic

Positive discipline is most compatible with an authoritative-democratic parenting style.

Authoritarian parenting style: If you use this style, you value obedience, may use physical punishment, and usually don’t allow freedoms or choices. Children of authoritarian parents may become followers and dependent on others to make decisions. They may also develop a sense of low self-esteem and may become aggressive or defiant.

Neglectful parenting style: With this style, parental involvement is limited and tends to reject or ignore the child. Children with neglectful parents may face many challenges, including difficulties with skill development, trust, and self-esteem.

Permissive parenting style: Do you frequently give in to you child’s demands, set very few rules and guidelines, provide little structure, and establish limits but do not enforce them? Children parented with this style may have low self-control and little ability to handle frustration. They may also have slow growth in maturity and have difficulty with responsibility. It is important to remember that children do not need or want freedom without limitations.

Authoritative-democratic parenting style: Parents with this style help their children learn to be responsible for themselves and to think about the consequences of their behavior. With this style, you tend to provide clear, reasonable expectations and check to make sure your child follows through. This parenting style focuses on positive encouragement and appropriate expectations for the child.


Lerner, C. & Dombro, A.L. (2000). Learning & Growing Together: Understanding Your Child’s Development. Washington, D.C.: ZERO TO THREE

Nelson, J., Erwin, C. & Duffy, R. (2007). Positive Discipline: The First Three Years. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press. – The Preventive Ounce’s information on understanding temperament in children

Behavior Due to Individual Differences

How do I know if my child’s behavior may be due to individual differences?

Every child is born with unique traits, including temperament (innate, enduring aspects of an individual’s personality, as defined by nine categories, including activity, regularity, adaptability, mood, sensitivity, and distractibility). Genetic and biological factors influence a child’s individual personality and development. Temperament can have a big impact on how a child responds to his world and the people in it.

Children also display individual differences in their learning styles, health, or sensory processing or sensory integration (the ability to take in and make sense of different kinds of sensations), for example. These can influence how a child behaves in various situations. Understanding and respecting these differences can help you know how to best support and respond when your child is having trouble.

The key to telling the impact of individual differences on behavior is to think about your child’s unique personality and his general approach to the world. Is he slow to warm? Or is he a child that jumps right into a new activity? Is she easily distracted? Or does she enjoy sitting with one toy for long periods of time? Reflect on your child’s unique personality. This can help you to identify consistent patterns in how she responds to her environment. Then you can find ways to support her individual style, rather than struggle against it.

Ask yourself:

  • Have I ruled out that the behavior might be mainly due to my child’s developmental stage?
  • What have I observed and learned about my child’s temperament over the years? Does this information help me understand my child’s approach or response to various situations? Does the behavior match what I have read or learned about temperament, sensory integration, or other individual traits?
  • What have I noticed about my child’s general approach to learning and activities? It may be very helpful to talk with your child’s teacher to determine if there is consistency in your child’s behavior across environments.

What is my child communicating? How can understanding this help me know how to respond?

When children’s behaviors are a result of their own unique differences, they are communicating that they experience things in their own way. If things are challenging, it may be because something or someone in their environment is not compatible with their individual style. Do you suspect that your child’s behavior may be due to temperament or individual style of responding to the environment? If so, try the following strategies:

  • Adapt your expectations to meet your child’s individual style and needs. Make accommodations, when necessary. Your child’s ability to change inborn traits is limited.
  • Offer options in your environment, when possible, that allow for your child’s unique way of expressing himself.
  • Partner with your child’s teachers to provide support for his individual learning and other styles. Having a collaborative relationship with your child’s teachers can provide support to both you and your child.


Why Is This Happening? What Questions Can I Ask? What Is My Child Trying to Communicate? Strategies for Interventions
Is it due to individual differences?
What are individual differences?- They are styles or ways of interacting with the world and the people within it that are unique to that child. These styles have been consistent across that child’s history.

Examples of individual differences:

 • Temperamental styles (shy, outgoing, impulsive)

 • Learning styles (auditory, visual)

 • Congenital health or developmental conditions

 • Organic deficits

 • Physical or physiological differences

 • Could the behavior be due to my child’s developmental stage?

 • What information do I have about my child’s temperamental qualities?

 • Do my child’s behaviors match what I have read or know about temperament?

 • What have I noticed about my child’s general approach to learning or activities?

 • Is my child’s general style at home consistent with reports from his teachers (if any)?

“I experience things in my own way. This may be why I approach a particular activity or person in a certain way. Something or someone may not be easily compatible with my individual style.” 1. Observe your child to identify his or her temperamental style

2. Adapt your expectations and interactions

3. Offer options, when you can, that allow for and appreciate children’s different ways of expressing themselves and responding to the world

4. Partner with your child’s teacher to support your child’s individual learning style, both at home and at school


The framework for understanding your child’s behaviors is based upon an adaptation of James Hymes’ Understanding Your Child by Kadija Johnston, LCSW, Director of the UCSF Infant Parent Program, and is used with her permission.

Social-Emotional Development at Different Stages

Infancy. In infancy, emotions arise primarily from physical sensations, such as hunger, fatigue, and discomfort. Emotions and feelings can easily “flood” and overwhelm the young infant, who is not yet able to soothe herself. In her first few months, she relies almost entirely upon the responsive and nurturing care of her parent to calm her and bring her back to a state of comfort and ease. This can be an overwhelming time for parents as well, as they try to discover the best ways to respond to the needs and temperament of their young infant. Yet it is through the repeated interactions of the infant ‘s needs and parent ‘s response that the infant begins to develop a sense of trust in her caregivers and in her world. This is how she develops a sense of being loved, which enhances her self-confidence and her confidence in others.

Toddler years. As the infant grows and enters toddlerhood, emotions become more complex. The young child feels many emotions with intensity and is now expressing her independence. She expresses her feelings more openly, displaying strong ideas and her wish to make her own decisions. With this newfound independence, toddlers also have a drive for exploration. This is brought about in part by increased mobility. Wander too far, however, and the toddler may find herself seeking out her parent ‘s reassuring presence before starting out again on her next adventure. A key role for parents of children at this age is one of balance: It involves encouraging exploration and choice, while maintaining a presence that ensures the toddler a sense of safety and security.

As her social world expands, the toddler is also learning how to share, how to appropriately communicate her needs, and how to negotiate in her relationships. Tough work for a two-year-old! All of these tasks require a great deal from the young child who wants it all, yet is learning that the world is not always the way she wants it to be. The kind, reassuring presence of a trusted caregiver can help the young child express her needs and manage her frustration, which promotes self-control and self-confidence.

Preschool years. By the preschool years, children ‘s feelings, ideas, and expectations of others are more fully developed. Their increasing language skills provide them with a valuable tool for expressing their emotions, managing their feelings of disappointment and aggravation, and resolving conflicts when situations do not go their way. The preschooler is more able to display a wide range of emotions as well as convey empathy for others.

With support from her caregivers, she is able to anticipate how she may feel in various situations. She can use this skill to help her problem solve and develop solutions that promote a feeling of worth and confidence. Her social relationships are becoming more complex. She continues to benefit from the support of trusted adults who help her express herself, navigate conflicts, and enjoy her developing friendships.


James Hymes’ Understanding Your Child by Kadija Johnston, LCSWLerner, C. & Dombro, A.L. (2000). Learning & Growing Together: Understanding Your Child’s Development. Washington, D.C.: ZERO TO THREE

Nelson, J., Erwin, C. & Duffy, R. (2007). Positive Discipline: The First Three Years. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.