Close this search box.

What Is Self-Regulation? Why Teens Need It & How to Develop It


This article introduces the concept of self-regulation, and provides breathing and grounding exercises for any teen or adult to try when experiencing distress.

What Is Self-Regulation?

Self-regulation refers to an individual’s ability to control their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in favor of positive long-term outcomes. It is a practice that gives a person the space to pause and think about how they want to respond to a stressful situation, instead of instantly reacting. Emotional regulation refers to being able to adjust how one responds to distressing feelings. Both allow the individual to act in a manner that is consistent with their values, instead of being at the mercy of the stressor.

Why Is Self-Regulation Important for Teens?

Self-regulation is a skill that begins to develop as early as childhood. Infants, toddlers, and young children rely on their caregiver to co-regulate when they experience distressing emotions. The child learns how to regulate (or not) based on the behaviors the adults in their life display. Self-regulation influences one’s ability to establish social connections and develop emotionally later as a teen and adult. If a child does not learn how to navigate distressing emotions or stimuli, they will become a teen or adult who may struggle to control their impulses or behaviors because they can’t tolerate uncomfortable feelings. This teen or adult may lack emotional maturity and self-confidence, struggle to connect with others, and experience diminished mental and emotional wellbeing as a result. The ability to self-regulate is associated with improved mood, improved sleep, and better quality of life.

People Who Self-Regulate Can:

  • Pull themselves out of a bad mood
  • Calm themselves down when upset
  • Ground themselves when experiencing extreme excitement, anticipation, or stress
  • Pause before reacting
  • Act in alignment with their values
  • Persevere through difficult moments
  • Be flexible and adapt when needed

How Can Adults Help Teens Regulate?

Adults can help adolescents in their life self-regulate in many ways.

The first and most important way adults can help adolescents is by regulating themselves. Adolescents look to the adults in their life to set examples on how to behave and respond to situations. When the adult practices self-awareness and regulates their own emotions in front of teens, they are setting a great example for those younger minds to follow. Check out our article on being a positive role model for more information.

Adults can also help adolescents develop self-regulation skills by encouraging them to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is a practice of noticing: developing awareness around the present moment without judgment. It is the practice of “being where your feet are” – taking note of the stimuli around you as well as how you feel in your body at that time. Mindfulness bolsters self-awareness; practicing it can help individuals learn to meet their needs and consequently increase self-trust and expand self-confidence.

What Are Some Mindfulness Practices Teens Can Try?

Breathwork: This is the practice of consciously altering the breath pattern to initiate relaxation within the mind and body. Practicing breathwork has many benefits, including reducing stress, boosting mood and creativity, improving focus, enhancing sleep, etc.

There are several popular breathing techniques to try. Here is one very popular example:

4-7-8 Breathing 

  • find a comfortable position and close the eyes if comfortable
  • inhale deeply into the belly and fill the ribcage for 4 seconds
  • hold the full, expanded breath for 7 seconds
  • exhale completely for 8 seconds
  • repeat as needed.

Grounding: Grounding is the therapeutic exercise of bringing oneself into the present moment by connecting with the earth (or a grounded surface). It encourages focusing intentionally on various aspects of the sensory experience. Grounding is known to alleviate stress and anxiety and enhance overall mood and wellbeing.

Here is an example of a popular grounding method:

5-4-3-2-1 Method

  • find a comfortable position where feet are touching the ground
  • notice the following:
    • 5 things you can see
    • 4 things you can hear
    • 3 things you can smell
    • 2 things you can touch
    • 1 thing you can taste

If you want to learn more about the science of self-regulation and the importance of mindfulness, check out our accredited life coach training programs for more information. 

Change the lives of youth. Starting today.