Interoception- Emotional and Self Regulation

November 14, 2019

Written by Sarah Anderson. 

This post was written to contribute to the topic of Motherhood for the What Lola Likes blog by Sarah Anderson. All facts, opinions, and professional tips are Sarah’s.

This is the first of two posts discussing the topics of emotional literacy, emotional regulation, and self-regulation.  This first post is meant to lay a foundation for understanding how emotional regulation and self-regulation are developed.  The next post will include tips and activities that you can do at home to help develop your child’s emotional regulation and self-regulation skills.  

Photo provided by Sarah

Did you know…

  • Emotional regulation and impulse control are greater predictors of later success in life than IQ?  
  • Your baby’s brain doubles in size within the first year of life?(1,2)
  • By the age of three your baby’s brain is 80% of its adult size? (1,2)
  • Back and forth interactions of your baby and the adults they interact with shape their brain architecture, which supports the development of social/emotional skills? (3)
  • What your baby experiences during their first year of life is directly related to their long-term cognitive, emotional, and social outcomes through adulthood? (3)  

Talk about pressure!  

I promise, given love, care, and attention, your baby will develop just fine.  However, I do believe that proactive versus reactive parenting is important, especially when it comes to emotional regulation.  Let me explain why.

As an occupational therapist I specialize in helping children and adults learn how to emotionally regulate and self-regulate.  Emotional regulation is just what it sounds like- the ability to regulate your emotions in a socially acceptable manner.  Self-regulation is your ability to regulate your body’s physiological responses to external stimuli.  For example, if you hear a loud noise in the night your heart may start to beat fast.  If you are able to self-regulate you will be able to use a calming strategy, such as deep breathing, to decrease your heart rate.  My areas of expertise include sensory processing, emotional regulation, self-regulation, and emotional literacy.  All four areas are closely related and interdependent on one another.   I find that even as adults we struggle to understand our own emotions and have difficulty regulating when we experience stress. 

Emotional regulation starts with understanding our own emotions- this is also known as emotional literacy.  Emotional literacy is one of the most important skills you can teach your child.  When a child has the ability to understand and express their feelings they not only are more likely to be in control of their emotions, but they are also better able to connect to others’ emotions.  Another great benefit of having a child who can identify and understand their own emotions- they are better able to cope and implement self-regulation strategies.  Children start to self-regulate right around the age of seven, and around twelve years of age they can independently implement coping and regulation strategies.  It is our job as parents and caregivers, in the early years, to co-regulate with our children (cuddling, swaddling, rocking, and singing to them), and help them learn what calms and relaxes them.  So now that we know that emotional regulation is important and emotional literacy is needed to develop emotional regulation, how do we nurture the development of emotional literacy skills?  Just keep reading!

Photo provided by Sarah

We once lived in a world where we believed that humans had five basic senses.  The sense of smell, touch, sight, hearing, and taste.  We now know that there are actually eight total senses in the human body.  The three additional senses include proprioception, vestibular, and interoception.  Proprioception helps us to understand where our body is in space (body awareness).  The vestibular system allows us to know where our head is in space (balance & spatial orientation). Proprioception and the vestibular system won’t be discussed further in this post, but I didn’t want to introduce them and not explain their functions.  Interoception is a key player in our ability to emotionally regulation.  Interoception is our internal sense.  It helps us to feel and understand what is going on inside our body.  Everything from hunger, the urge to use the restroom, feeling hot or cold, and internal pain is detected by our interoceptive sense.  Interoception is also involved in our ability to understand and process emotion.  Have you ever thought about what happiness feels like inside your body?  What about when you feel anxious or nervous?  People who struggle with interoceptive awareness find it difficult to not only identify, but also cope with their emotions.  The best thing we can do for our children is to help them understand how emotions feel internally, so they can better identify, communicate, and cope.  Children so often have such big feelings when it comes to different emotions, but are unsure what it is they are experiencing.  One of the most common misinterpreted emotions for children is nervousness.  Many children believe that they are sick because their tummy hurts.  How many of you moms out there have experienced a child who does not want to go to school because their tummy hurts?  As you ask them more questions you realize that they have a big test coming up, or they are nervous about riding them bus without you.  What they are actually experiencing is anxiety.  Helping children develop language and a greater understanding of the difference between how various emotions feel will lead to a stronger interoceptive sense, increased emotional literacy, and the development of emotional regulation.   You can work on increasing your child’s interoceptive awareness through a variety of activities, which I will discuss in my next post.  

At the end of the day, I want you all to know that one of the most important factors for having an intact/healthy interoceptive system is a healthy attachment.  Loving your child, meeting their needs, and providing them with a safe environment will lay the foundation for their emotional development.


  1. Gilmore, J.H., Lin, W., Prastawa, M.W., Looney, C.B., Sampath, Y., Vetsa, K., et al. (2007). Regional gray matter growth, sexual dimorphism, and cerebral asymmetry in the neonatal brain. Journal of Neuroscience, 27(6), 1255–1260.
  2. Nowakowski, R.S. (2006). Stable neuron numbers from cradle to grave. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 103(33), 12219–12220.
  3. Fox, S.E., Levitt, P., & Nelson, C.A., III. (2010). How the timing and quality of early experiences influence the development of brain architecture. Child Development, 81(1), 28–40.


Dr. Sarah Anderson, OTD, OTR/L, is a pediatric & mental health occupational therapist, faculty member at Midwestern University, founder and owner of The Tranquil Mama, and most importantly, mama to her baby girl Penelope.  She has extensive experience working with children and their families in the areas of attachment, emotional literacy, emotional regulation, self-regulation, and stress-management.  Dr. Anderson, OTD, presents on the topics of emotional regulation and self-regulation in relation to childhood trauma locally as well as nationally.