Little People and Emotional Self-Regulation: The Value of Comfort and Compassion


Dear Nurturer,

Day by day, I see, hear, taste, touch, and smell many new-to-me things.  These sensations are like puzzle pieces. My brain is working hard to arrange them into a “picture” I can understand.   

My brain and body respond to all of these experiences in ways that are unique to me.

Pleasant-to-me experiences will probably make me smile, giggle, kick happily, run around excitedly, jump right in, or sit and watch in fascination for long periods of time.

Distressing-to-me experiences may trigger me to react with crying jags, tantrums, or withdrawal responses.

I need you to be my patient, gentle guide through each day as I meet people, take in many sights, adjust to listening technology, acquire language, try activities, taste foods, touch surfaces, and smell scents. 

Thank you for comforting me, and for teaching me positive ways to regulate my feelings and behaviors!


What is Self-Regulation?

Emotions are experiences that start in the brain and “overflow” to our bodies. We all have them from the very beginning of life, and they become more complex as we grow.  Our brains and bodies respond to our needs, wants, and experiences in a variety of unique-to-us ways.

Emotional self-regulation is our ability to control–within ourselves–how we show our emotions.  Babies have very little self-regulation at birth.  Their brains develop the skills necessary for emotional self-regulation over a lifetime. All little ones need significant support and practice doing so.

Safe, nurturing, attuned earliest relationships with loving caregivers provide a foundation for little people to recognize, manage, and show their BIG feelings in healthy ways.

Our goal as caregivers is to come alongside children as they learn the three key ingredients to emotional self-regulation:

1–How to identify their feelings as the emotions happen within them

2–How to label their feelings–both to themselves and to those around them

3–How to choose the healthiest ways to respond to these feelings through outward behaviors


The opposite of self-regulation is emotional dysregulation.  This occurs when a child struggles to identify signs of emotions within his body and express these emotions in healthy, appropriate ways. The upset happening within the child will show on the outside.

Of course, the child’s developmental level and the presence of special learning needs influence a child’s emotional self-regulation in enormous ways. A child with hearing differences understandably needs specific support in this learning journey.

How-To Guide

How can I support healthy emotional self-regulation in my young DHH child?

Little people–and big ones–show emotional dysregulation in two main ways: hypoarousal and hyperarousal.

The brain is always asking, from the very earliest moments of our lives, “Am I safe?” This fundamental question is a guiding force behind many behaviors. Parents and caregivers of DHH infants and toddlers are wise to pay particular attention to any signs of dysregulation.

A child in hypoarousal will likely slow down and withdraw in visible ways.  Hypoarousal may also be called “Flight” or “Freeze.” This may look like slowed breathing, becoming uncharacteristically quiet and slow-moving, avoiding eye contact by closing her eyes or looking away, bringing her limbs in close, physically moving away from others, and taking out her hearing aids or cochlear implants.  Her body may seem to “shut down,” even to the point of trembling or appearing confused, emotionally “empty,” or distant.

A hypoaroused child’s brain is signaling only one thing: “I am distressed. I must get away from the source of my distress in any way possible!”

A child in hyperarousal will show a BIG response to a stressful experience. Hyperarousal is often referred to as a “Fight” response. A tantrum is a pretty typical symptom of a hyperaroused little one. He will have faster and perhaps labored breathing, reddened skin, tightening of muscles, flailing, crying, throwing, hitting, kicking, or running.  This child may seem irritable, angry, distracted, panicky, or jumpy.

A hyperaroused child’s brain is on full alert, essentially screaming, “I am in danger! I have to protect myself in any way possible!”

A little one who is in emotional dysregulation needs one main gift from you: comfort.

Here’s how.

Know your little person.

Honoring your little one's needs and limits will make all the difference.
Show Me How >

Know yourself.

Hint: Your little person is not the only one in the relationship!
Show Me How >

Become a teammate: daily routines.

Tweak daily rhythms to fit your little one's needs, personality, and limits.
Show Me How >

Know what comforts.

Comfort and compassion are the healthiest response in a little one's distressing moments.
Show Me How >

Become a teammate: communication.

Build clear, meaningful, two-way communication.
Show Me How >

Become a teammate: expectations.

Show Me How >

Become a teammate: modeling.

You are your child's first and most important teacher!
Show Me How >

Prioritize fun and joy.

Maybe the goals today are not on the IFSP. Maybe the goals are building closeness, creating memories, and remaining balanced.
Show Me How >


How does self-regulation help my DHH child in lifelong ways?

Little people with BIG feelings need our compassion for their hard-to-feel emotions, and our comfort for moments when life feels like too much.

When you consistently offer your child comfort and compassion, she learns healthy ways to regulate her emotional expressions at home, in school, and in relationships.



Strong self-regulation enables your DHH child to grow in these ways:

Early Brain Development


  • Ability to focus on what is important, and to ignore what isn’t
  • Capacity to follow directions
  • Efficiency in shifting attention from one thing to another


Strong Sense of Self


  • Ability to self-soothe in distressing moments
  • Ability to care for both mind and body
  • Demonstrate flexibility amidst changes

Healthy Relationships


  • Respond calmly when someone or something upsets me
  • Tell others how I feel rather than acting in harmful ways
  • Stay calm in stressful situations

Overall Life Satisfaction


  • Choose and work toward goals
  • Adapt to a variety of expectations
  • Become increasingly independent in all areas of life

Curious To Learn More?

Check out our additional Relationship Resources for more information on nurturing your child. 

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