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Have you ever wondered about the role parents play in helping their children find calmness? What exactly is co-regulation? You’re likely familiar with the term “self-regulation,” which refers to an individual’s ability to comprehend and manage their own behavior and reactions. However, before children can achieve self-regulation, they rely on the guidance and support of adults to acquire this skill. There is a quite that says ‘A dysregulated adult can’t regulate a dysregulated child’. Co-regulation is the process of regulating emotions and behaviors, with the assistance of a supportive figure, in response to internal sensory input or external stimuli that induce stress. It involves nurturing connections that help individuals manage stress by employing various strategies, tools, and calming techniques.
Children need to co-regulate alongside parents, teachers, and other caregivers who can teach them to balance and soothe their internal and external systems. Co-regulation is a crucial step in the developmental progression that comes before self-regulation.
Co-regulation begins during infancy. Infants cannot self-soothe; they rely on their parents to help them. When a baby cries, a parent may pick them up, hold them close, rock them, swaddle them tightly, or offer a pacifier. These actions provide the sensory input necessary to calm the baby’s nervous system. In essence, co-regulation involves parents offering tools and strategies to support their child’s needs. Another example occurs when a toddler gets hurt. The caregiver responds by using a calm and soothing voice, offering reassurance, a hug, and encouraging deep breaths. This calm response helps the child regain composure. Conversely, if a caregiver reacts with panic or anger, it can exacerbate the child’s distress.
While self-regulation continues to develop as children grow, the ability to co-regulate gradually shifts from being reliant on external support to becoming an individual and independent skill.
Problems may arise when adults struggle with self-regulation themselves. If caregivers are not well-regulated, they may not provide the necessary tools and strategies to support a child’s co-regulation. Stress, exhaustion, irritability, and other internal factors can hinder a caregiver’s ability to help a child co-regulate effectively. When caregivers respond with emotional outbursts, anger, or anxiety, children may struggle to soothe themselves. On the other hand, a calm and supportive caregiver generally leads to better outcomes. For co-regulation to work effectively, the caregiver must be well-regulated to assist the child adequately.
Co-regulation is essential for nurturing calming connections in a child’s brain. A caregiver’s calming energy directly impacts the child’s sense of calmness. Co-regulation with parents can be likened to teaching a child to walk. At first, the child needs their parent’s support, just as a toddler relies on their parent’s hands to start walking. However, with practice, the child gains the balance and coordination necessary to walk on their own. While they may occasionally require assistance, their walking improves over time until they can do it independently. In the absence of parental support, a child may become discouraged and potentially resort to maladaptive coping strategies.
Without co-regulation, a child may experience dysregulation, leading to emotional responses that fall outside the accepted range. This can include outbursts, aggression, and the development of maladaptive coping strategies such as emotion suppression, anxiety, blaming, self-harm, escape, or avoidance.
It’s crucial for adults to evaluate their own sources of stress, anxiety, and emotional state to better support children. When dealing with a screaming child during a tantrum, it can be challenging, especially if the situation triggers strong emotions in the caregiver. Self-regulation techniques like deep breathing, clearing the mind, and positive self-talk can help calm the caregiver’s nervous system. There can also be the need for more formal support from an expert who can work with you to support your own regulation.
The way parents manage their own emotions, based on past experiences, thoughts, and beliefs about emotions, influences how well they guide their children. A calm, engaged, and emotionally regulated parent often leads to a child developing similar qualities.
Emotional dysregulation in adults can affect those around them. An agitated, chaotic, or emotionally dysregulated adult can influence the emotional state of others. Consequently, anxious parents may have anxious children, and complaining parents may have children who also complain. Therefore, it’s vital for parents to work on self-regulation as a means to foster better connections and relationships with their children.
This can take time to get into the habit of doing, especially if you have been yourself dysregulated and in emotional and stress over-drive for years. But taking small steps and working to just improve a TINY bit each day can make huge improvements overtime. This is about the long-game and long-term work to get this ‘better’. Just starting with something as simple as a PAUSE and taking an extra breath or 10 before helping your child is an amazing start. The breathing techniques that work for kids can help you too – like Bubble Breathing or Rollercoaster breathing.
If you need help and more strategies to support your child’s self-regulation (and how you can better improve your ability for co-regulation), reach out to the Occupational Therapists here at Play On Pediatric Therapy here in Barrhaven, (West Ottawa), Ontario