July 9, 2024

The Art of Co-regulation: 5 Tips To Support Your Dysregulated Child.

Do you often find yourself grappling with your child’s challenging behaviour, such as frequent tantrums, difficulty transitioning between activities, or aggression, feeling like you’re the only one? The truth is many parents face similar situations. In parenting and education circles, emotional self-regulation has been a hot topic. But is your child ready for this, or are our expectations too high? Co-regulation, the foundation of a healthy nervous system, could be the answer. Here are some strategies to assist you in supporting your child with emotional dysregulation through co-regulation.

What Is Co-regulation, And Why Is It So Important?

Before delving into co-regulation, it’s crucial to understand that the skill of emotional self-regulation is a significant component of a person’s wellbeing. Self-regulation, in its simplest form, can be defined as one’s ability to identify, manage and adapt one’s emotional state. However, this highly valuable skill doesn’t miraculously occur at a particular age or stage of development. It requires modelling, practice and explicit teaching from a regulated adult. This is where you, as a parent, play a crucial role in your child’s emotional development through co-regulation.

The art of co-regulation begins in utero. A baby’s nervous system begins to attune to its mother’s nervous system well before she is able to hold her baby in her arms. Babies and young children respond directly to the sensory input surrounding them. For instance, when babies are in a calm environment, they are more likely to feel more at ease. However, if a baby or young child senses that a caregiver is stressed, their physiological (bodily) sense of safety is threatened, producing higher cortisol levels (stress hormone) and initiating a stress response (fight/flight/freeze/fawn), usually expressed as a behaviour (crying, clenched hands, stomping feet). Interestingly, when a baby or child is crying or having a meltdown, parents often notice their stress levels rising, and so begins the cycle of dysregulation. 

A distressed baby or child needs a regulated adult to comfort and soothe them, restoring their physiological safety. This can be done through various behaviours, such as maintaining a calm and reassuring tone of voice, using gentle touch, or providing a safe and quiet space. The challenge for many parents is recognising that our personal regulation skills are the most potent tool we possess. Is it a simple task? Not at all. However, through my work with families, I’ve witnessed the profound impact of building a parent’s capacity to comfort and soothe their child through acknowledging and regulating their own emotional triggers. When we shift our focus from controlling the child’s behaviour to understanding our triggers and transitioning into a calmer state, the co-regulation that ensues is like witnessing a beautiful dance. This marks the beginning of the child’s journey to self-regulation.

When Can I Expect My Child To Self-Regulate?

It is a unique journey for each child. Critical brain development in early childhood sets the stage for emotional self-regulation, which matures through the development of the brain’s neural pathways, exposure to modelling, and opportunities to practise. This process is gradual, and it’s essential to be patient and understanding. Whilst this valuable skill begins its development at a young age, children will spend many years learning to master it through co-regulation. The pre-frontal cortex (PFC) is an area of the brain that manages our thoughts, actions and emotions, including our ability to control impulses. It begins developing in early childhood and has a particularly critical growth period during adolescence but is only fully developed at around age 25. Developmental trauma and chronic stress can disrupt and delay this process even further, with many adults still finding emotional self-regulation a challenge. Research has also shown that children who have a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) will possibly have additional difficulties in learning to self-regulate, making co-regulation skills in the surrounding adults even more imperative.

Remember, there’s no rush. Each child will find their own pace; however, through effective co-regulation, we can model the skills required and support our children to become emotionally healthy, caring and connected adults.

5 Ways To Practice Co-Regulation 

Co-regulation will always begin with the adult. The five strategies listed below build on your capacity to stay regulated and effectively model to your child. 

  1. Know Your Triggers.

Often, our child’s behaviour triggers a response in us that is deeply rooted in our past experiences. If we were not ‘heard’ as a child, we might have an emotional reaction if our child appears to be ignoring us or not listening to our requests to finish their game or begin their homework. If we were yelled at as a child, we might react if our child is screaming or having a meltdown. Taking some time to explore our own triggers can be powerful in preparing us for those moments when we know we can become dysregulated and be proactive in our responses. 

  1. Cultivate Your Own Regulation Strategies.

Internal Strategies

Internal strategies are the coping tools we can bring to mind ‘in the moment’. When we are feeling overwhelmed and about to react, we need a helpful ‘go to’ strategy. This will be different for everybody, and it is worth taking the time to explore what works best for you. Some of the tools that have worked well for the parents I work with are:

  • Mindful breathing – Taking a deep breath in through the nose, counting to three, and breathing out through the mouth for the count of six (increasing this to four in and eight out when possible), provides a direct connection to your nervous system, giving the message that you are safe and in control. This allows your survival response to settle and the PFC to re-engage, increasing our ability to make a helpful choice in that moment rather than one we will regret later.
  • 5,4,3,2,1 – Tapping into our senses reminds our mind that it has a body that needs regulating. When our mind is triggered, our thoughts can take over. When we re-engage our mind-body connection, we can manage the sensations impacting our thoughts. With this tool, we stop and find:
    • Five things you can see – simply placing your attention and naming five things you can see within your immediate vicinity
    • Four things you can touch – use your fingers to touch any surfaces within your reach, including clothing, a table, your hair, etc
    • Three things you can hear – listening to any sounds near or far
    • Two things you can smell – it may be that no particular smell is available to you, but take a moment to take two deep breaths
    • One thing you can taste – perhaps the last thing you had to eat or drink is still present

It is essential to keep this process simple, allowing your senses to be activated, slowing down the survival response, and bringing yourself back to physiological safety.

  • Shaking and Horse Lips Breathing – Two quick strategies can be implemented to release the building tension. One or both of these may feel appropriate, depending on where you are at the time. A public display of horse lips breathing may not feel comfortable if you are standing at the school gates dropping off your child, but it will be perfectly acceptable at home or in the car after drop-off.
  • Shaking – this exercise simply requires you to shake your hands vigorously. This action helps release cortisol, which may build up in your limbs during a stressful moment. Once you have shaken for a moment, stop and notice the feeling in your hands. You may feel a tingling sensation, indicating an energy shift.
  • Horse lips breathing – as you breathe out, loosely puff your lips, allowing them to vibrate as the air expels. This breath releases tension around the jaw area, where we often hold stress.  

External Strategies

External strategies are daily skills that build our capacity to regulate our emotions, supporting the de-escalation of our survival responses when they are being activated. I have found that most parents appreciate tools that do not add to their daily tasks but can be integrated into everyday activities. Incorporating mindfulness skills into our daily tasks gives the autonomic nervous system a chance to reset. The more regularly our nervous system has an opportunity to reset, the more flexibility it develops. Here are some of my favourite daily mindful activities:

  • Mindful Tea/Coffee/Chai

Most of us enjoy a daily tea, coffee, or chai. However, many of us are drinking our favourite beverage on the run. Simply taking an extra 3 minutes to slow down and enjoy our hot drink of choice can regulate our nervous system. Firstly, hold the cup in your hands and notice the feel of the temperature on your skin. Take a moment to breathe in the scent of your drink, inhaling deeply. Take a sip and notice the temperature and the taste on your tongue. Follow the liquid as it travels down into your throat. Take a deep breath in between sips. You may only have time to do this for the first couple of sips, and then you need to keep moving, but in that small moment, the shift in your nervous system will be helpful.

  • Music – is powerful and has the capacity to shift our moods. We all have a unique relationship with music as it connects deep into our somatic and cognitive memories, so there are no rules here. As I write, I’m listening to Deva Premal, a favourite of mine, to keep me regulated and focused. In my work with children and teens, we often develop a regulation playlist to add to their toolbox.
  • Be Outdoors – in order to shift our emotional state, we sometimes need to change our environment. Take a moment to step outside and notice the change in temperature of the air on your skin. Take a deep breath in and allow the fresh air to flow through your body. Listen to the different sounds that you can hear outside. Notice any nature around you – birds, trees, butterflies, flowers, and grass. 
  1. Explicitly model your own strategies.

No matter what age our children are, they are taking note of how we manage our emotional state. Sharing with them that we are feeling overwhelmed or stressed (within reason) is helpful to let them know that this is a normal part of the human experience. It is not beneficial for our children to think that we always have everything under control. Sharing our experiences with our children is a significant part of the co-regulation process, but even more so is modelling the strategies that work for us. An example would be to say to your child, “I’m feeling really overwhelmed right now, so I’m just going to stop and take five deep breaths so that we can resolve this problem together”.  Or, “I’m starting to feel out of control, so I’m going to just step outside and get some fresh air”. It’s important to note that in a stressful situation, we should regulate ourselves first and foremost. By explaining what you are doing (either at the time or later on when you feel ready), your child can process that information and mirror your strategies. 

  1. Validate Your Child’s Experience/Emotions

Emotions are subjective, meaning that each individual uniquely experiences them. When children express big emotions, they share with us that something doesn’t feel quite right. It may be that another child or sibling took their special toy or that they accidentally knocked over the tower they were building. Perhaps they lost in the game they were playing, or someone at school said something unkind to them. Whatever the experience, the emotion connected to that experience is valid for them in that moment. When we respond in ways such as “calm down” or “that isn’t such a big deal”, we invalidate their experience and risk them learning to shut down or downplay an emotion. Instead, we can both validate their experience and support emotional regulation by responding with a gentle voice and an enquiry. For example, “I can see that this has really upset you; would you like to tell me about it?”. Or, “Is there something you need right now, a hug or maybe some help?”. It is imperative that our children understand that all emotions are significant and have a right to be expressed, especially the challenging ones. As their brains develop and they build on their regulation skills, they will learn how to manage even the big emotions.

  1. Repair The Rupture 

We are all human, and part of the human experience is that we are far from perfect. No matter how developed our skills of regulation are, there will be times when we overreact or respond in a way that we later regret. Dr Daniel Siegel, one of the authors of “Parenting From The Inside Out”, calls this a ‘rupture’ – a break in the nurturing connection between a parent and a child. Practising self-compassion in those moments is essential. They will happen. Reassuringly, what Dr Siegel focuses on is the ‘repair’. A repair involves reflecting on what led to the rupture and how the parent and child reacted. Then, the opportunity for growth and learning presents itself. It is not an apology, although it may incorporate an apology. A repair is a conversation that includes deep listening and understanding through a connected, restorative approach – a desire to respond differently next time. 

On a Personal Note

I have both a personal and professional interest in co-regulation. Professionally, I see parents reconnecting with their children as these skills are integrated into family life. It is the single most powerful change in bringing together and rebuilding families that I see in my practice. 

At a personal level, I experienced this profound shift in my relationship with my daughter, who is now 30 years old and a mother herself. When my daughter was 14 years old, our relationship was struggling. At the time, I believed her behaviour was rude and disrespectful, not helping with household chores and generally bringing tension and stress into the household. Upon reflection, she was behaving just like a typical teenager, trying to develop her identity and work out her place in the world. However, it was my first experience as the parent of a teen, and my regulation skills were still underdeveloped. Her behaviour brought back many unhealed aspects of my own past, and I reacted in all the wrong ways. 

One day, after another argument had escalated, I was in my bedroom crying, wondering where I had gone wrong, and I suddenly had an epiphany – a lightbulb moment. What if it wasn’t her? What if this is actually about me? I cannot express how deeply profound that moment was. I began learning about mindfulness and the importance of self-regulation. Co-regulation would come later, but I needed to start by taking care of myself, building my own ability to manage my emotional state and practising self-compassion, particularly when I was triggered by my daughter’s behaviour towards me. The next time we began to disagree, I took a deep breath and let her know in my calmest voice (even though my insides were churning) that I was going to walk away and could speak to her later when I had calmed myself down. I went to my room and closed the door. My daughter was not used to this type of response and, to be honest didn’t react very well at first. She was used to our pattern of escalation. It took quite a few weeks for this to settle, and eventually, our arguments diminished, replaced by deep conversations and a lot of healing. Was this the end of our arguments? No, it wasn’t! However, it was the end of the soul-crushing escalation of our anger, and we began a journey of mutual understanding and rebuilding of trust that still exists today. As a co-regulating new mother to my adorable granddaughter, I can see the positive effect of my decision many years before. 

It’s Never Too Late

Be kind and gentle with yourself as you develop these skills. It is never too late to begin practising the art of co-regulation with your children. Now we know that a child’s wellbeing is directly impacted by the parent’s wellbeing, taking the time to explore your own triggers, healing from the past, and building your emotional regulation capacity will directly benefit your children and your relationship with them. If your children are now teens or young adults, they will be grateful for your attempts to heal and improve your skills. By modelling your journey, you demonstrate that they can continue to grow in their own regulation abilities throughout their life. By incorporating these 5 tips into your parenting, the relationship with your children will continue to flourish. The ripple effect of your actions now will live long past this generation. 

To learn more about parenting through co-regulation or to engage in Parent Coaching with Calm Kids, visit their website, or to see this Article published in Brainz Magazine, click here.