Co-regulation Leads to Self-regulation
Updated: Jan 16, 2022
First of all, as with any parenting skills upgrade, let yourself off the hook for the past. You - like your child - always do the best you can in the moment. So if this is new information, take it in and start practicing it without wasting any energy on whatever happened in the past. Practice self-compassion and give yourself a break.
Now, what if... every time your child melts down or has a big emotional reaction to something... instead of becoming: anxious, upset, angry, fearful, embarrassed, disappointed, frustrated, alarmed, reactive....
What if the next time instead you... take a deep breath and appreciate their reaction as an opportunity for them to learn, grow and to connect with you and with themselves. Become calmly eager for and appreciative of these moments as opportunities for you to be fully present right by your child's side conveying warmth, love and unconditional acceptance.
Wow! Would that be a game-changing reaction for you? If so, read on...
Our children (like ourselves) have big feelings about many things. Depending on their level of self-regulation in a given moment, they may take a situation in stride, they may giggle, they may be able to problem solve... or they may completely lose it and have a big emotional melt-down (just like we sometimes have).
When the melt-downs happen, IF you as their loving adult/coach/pack leader remain calm and accepting, letting the moments play out, your children will learn how to let their feelings pass through them, name them, understand them, and accept them as part of what it means to be human. They will love you and love themselves. Over time, they will learn self-regulation because you offered them co-regulation when they needed it most.
Think of your child's big feelings as a ball at the top of a steep hill. Sometimes it's a short hill and sometimes it's a longer hill. Sometimes they are able to keep their feelings at the top of the hill. But whenever your child's feelings start down the hill, the ball of their emotions needs to keep rolling until it reaches the bottom and settles down. Their emotions have forces acting on them, just like gravity on a ball.
If you are able to calmly stroll down the hill with them and catch them at the bottom, they will learn - over time - that all emotions are safe, they are safe, they are loved and accepted, and their big feelings are a wonderful part of what it means to be human.
Over time and with your guidance, they can learn to name their emotions and find ways to self-regulate, to give themselves that love and support you have consistently and unconditionally offered and modeled. They might use breathing, spending time outdoors, yoga or meditation, punching a pillow, squeezing a ball, taking a bath, listening to music, taking a sip of water, chewing gum.... There are endless ways to teach our children how to self-regulate when big feelings come up (and they will come up, so we need to be ready).
To be ready to respond to big melt downs with generous, unconditional love and acceptance, we - as the adults in children's lives - need to have a deep enough well of positive emotional excess to be able to regulate our own reactions to their melt downs. We have to practice self-care to have the reserves we need to flow with our children to the bottom of their emotional hills. We must practice our own self-regulation to be able to be there for our children when they need us.
Important footnote: You can't fake it.
The key to co-regulation is that you can't fake it. If you're upset, angry, frustrated on the inside, that's what your child will feel. It's not what we say, but how we feel when we say it. So to truly co-regulate with your child, you have to embrace the moment. Parents need to find a way to truly feel happy that this "teachable" moment of big feelings is happening that gives us a chance to co-regulate and model how to self-regulate through big feelings. It's more stressful and confusing to children when our words don't match what they feel radiating from inside us. If you're upset inside, let your children know it. It's OK to "lose it" sometimes. It gives us the chance to let our kids see that we understand what that feels like.
Give it a try.
Commit this week taking a few minutes out of every hour to calmly regulate your own emotional well-being. Take some nice deep breaths every hour. Make yourself a cup of tea in the morning and enjoy a few soothing sips. If you consistently and mindfully keep your own emotional well full, it won't take as much effort to keep yourself in a good, healthy, emotionally-regulated state so that when your child's big feelings come out, you will be ready with an accepting, co-regulating presence to be with your child in a calm, loving way.
Try it a few times - don't expect yourself to be perfect. Try it and see if you are able to enjoy the melt downs and big feelings your child expresses. Try it and see if your relationship with your child becomes easier and more joyful. Try it and see if they become more self-regulated when their big feelings come up. Try it and let me know how it impacts your parenting journey. email@example.com
If you would like support to learn to co-regulate, to unlearn the triggers that cause you to lose control when your child is melting down, schedule a one-on-one session with me today. We can work on those skills so you have less stress and more ease with your child, even when they are melting down. Wouldn't that be a game-changer?