Young children are faced with learning to control their behaviors and emotions, which is a skill labeled self-regulation. You can see different levels of this ability when you observe children in a classroom. Some children may be able to sit quietly while completing a difficult worksheet. Other children may become frustrated and complain about wanting to play or eat lunch instead of completing their work.

Although some self-regulation skills may be genetic, it is also a skill that can be improved. When children are learning to control their behaviors and emotions, they often can be seen talking themselves through tasks using private speech. Older children and adults also use private speech to guide behavior, especially during difficult, complex activities, but it is called inner speech because they tend to keep it internal. Private speech allows us to observe how young children might be regulating their behaviors and emotions because they say private speech aloud.


Some types of private speech are seen as positive, such as when children talk about the steps required to finish a task or pointing out different aspects of a task. These types of private speech show that children may be thinking through their behaviors in a more self-regulated manner. On the other hand, some types of private speech show that children are having difficulty regulating their behaviors and emotions. For example, when children use private speech to reflect on things unrelated to the task at hand or focus on task difficulty, it generally indicates that children are not regulating their behaviors in an effective way that will help them meet the demands of the situation.

Parents can play a very important role in helping children to learn the best strategies for self-regulation, which is reflected in the type of private speech that children use. Children learn from parents what is appropriate behavior and what they should do in different situations. Researchers have found that mothers who are sensitive, meaning they respond to children in appropriate ways, have children with better self-regulation. There are also times parents need to be directive with their children, especially when children are young and learning appropriate ways to interact with the world. We were interested in seeing how these different types of parenting (sensitivity and directiveness) were related to children’s self-regulation as expressed through their private speech.

We observed mothers’ behavior when playing with their toddler-aged children to see if it would be associated with children’s private speech when the children were preschoolers. We expected that mothers who were less directive and more sensitive would have children who used more of the beneficial types of private speech. Recognizing the importance of early parenting, we followed the same mothers and children for 2.5 years to see how parenting when children were toddlers predicted their private speech when they were preschoolers. Often, researchers who examine children’s private speech use activities focused on their cognitive skills like problem-solving. We recognize the importance of understanding how children’s emotions play a part in their ability to control their behaviors, particularly in difficult situations, so we observed children’s private speech during an emotionally challenging activity.


To carry out our study, we followed 140 mothers and their 30- to 36-month-old children for 2.5 years. In the end, 116 mother-child pairs completed both visits to our research lab. This research was observational, so we had mothers and their children visit our research lab at a university, and we recorded them doing multiple things together so that we could score the behavior later. In toddlerhood, we watched how mothers interacted with their children during two free play tasks where mothers and their children simply played together with toys that we provided. We coded the mother’s sensitivity and directiveness. Sensitivity included paying attention to their toddlers’ requests and responding appropriately to these requests. Directiveness included how much the mothers structured the play episodes.

When children were 4-5 years old, we had the same children come back and complete an activity that can be frustrating. We placed toys in a clear box, locked the box, and then gave children a ring of keys. We then left the room after telling the children they could use the keys to open the box and play with the toys while we were gone. None of the keys given to the children could open the box. After 4 minutes, we returned and told children that we were sorry because we forgot to give them the correct key. For this task, we transcribed children’s speech and assigned it to different categories for whether it was: 1) too quiet to be understood, 2) unrelated to what they were doing, 3) related to trying to open the box but focused on how difficult the task was, or 4) related to the task without referencing task difficulty.

Surprisingly, we did not find that maternal sensitivity or directiveness directly predicted children’s private speech. We did, however, find that maternal sensitivity and directiveness combined to predict children’s private speech that was related to the task and did not include references to task difficulty. This private speech is often referred to as “facilitative task-relevant” because it shows children are focused on the task, without getting stuck on the difficulty of the task. More specifically, we found that more maternal directiveness, when children were toddlers, was associated with less facilitative task-relevant private speech, when children were preschoolers, only when mothers were also more sensitive.


The pattern of findings demonstrated a complex relation between sensitivity and directiveness. Mothers who were high in both sensitive and directive behaviors had children who used less of the facilitative task-relevant private speech. While we typically expect sensitive parenting to be associated with positive outcomes for children, it may be that the combination of highly sensitive and highly directive parenting during activities such as a free play task may hinder children’s ability to learn how to self-regulate. While parents may be sensitive to their children’s wants and needs, they may also continually direct and guide their children’s behavior so that children don’t have as much of an opportunity to practice guiding and controlling their own behavior. This poorer self-regulation was seen in the lower levels of children’s facilitative task-relevant private speech in our study.

Overall, we found that parenting behavior that combined sensitivity and directiveness was associated with children’s private speech, even 2.5 years later. In addition, children’s self-regulation may be best supported when parents are high in sensitivity but low in directiveness.

These findings are described in the article entitled Maternal behaviors in toddlerhood as predictors of children’s private speech in preschool, recently published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology.

About The Author

Kimberly L. Day is an Assistant Professor at the University of West Florida, where she also heads the Children's Self-Regulation Lab.

Cynthia L. Smith is an Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies at Virginia Tech, where she also heads the Children's Emotions Lab.