Co-regulating with children of all ages
Updated: Jun 26
If you have searched what co-regulation is, chances are that you have found information about attaching with your baby. Often the information will be focusing on development and how trauma or broken attachment will affect a child's ability to regulate their emotions. This early learning and attachment is very important in helping development and learning to regulate, but co-regulation shouldn't stop, it is life long. At every stage of development and into adulthood, there are times when emotions are completely overwhelming and we need support and calming from another person.
For the purpose of this blog I will focus on Co-regulation between a child and adult. Co-regulation is a term that we use to describe the interaction between a child and another person (not necessarily a parent) where the adult shares their calm when the child is losing it or "dysregulated". We co-regulate by offering a warm, calm response. This response should provide support, coaching and modeling. In this safe place children can then learn to understand and express their feelings in a positive way. Simple to say, not necessarily simple to do. Especially when a child is triggering you and the last thing you feel you can share is calm.
1. Know your Triggers
You can't share your calm if you don't have any calm to give. What are the things that get under your skin? Is it being spoken to disrespectfully, being ignored, refusal? Why do these things trigger you so much? We know that all of these behaviours are normal for children to do, but they can send us from being a reasonably calm parent to a yelling, screaming mess.
It can help to think about these situations when you aren't in the emotions. During the situation it can feel like these kids are behaving this way to deliberately drive you crazy. We take it so personally because we are so invested in these little people. But the truth is the kids are just responding from their own emotions, they aren't out to upset you.
2. Focus on the emotions
If we can hold back from being triggered ourselves, we need to take a step back and focus on the child's emotion rather than the behaviour. So if a child is yelling at you or even swearing, focus on the anger not how it is delivered. Focusing on what they are doing wrong is only going to add fuel to the fire. If you meet this anger with anger you are only going to escalate the situation. Rather, say something like "you seem really angry about this". Acknowledging the emotions brings the focus back the source of the problem, and from there it can be resolved.
3. Keep it calm
I'm not suggesting that this is easy, but we need to keep ourselves calm. Take some deep breaths and use a calm voice. Yelling when your child is yelling simply doesn't work. What it does do is reinforce that this is how we manage our emotions. We all lose it sometimes, I in no way want to make parents feel guilty. I believe that most of us are doing our best with our kids. But we can all improve the way react at times and in doing that we are modelling to our kids how to manage their own emotions.
If you respond to yelling with a slow, calm voice, eventually the child will bring their voice down too. Tone of voice and body language make a big difference. If you are trying to use a calm voice through grit teeth and clenched fists, you aren't calm and it probably won't help. If you need to take a break first then do that, so that when you come back you can be in control of your own emotions.
4. Emotion Coach
Once you have met your child with calm and acknowledged how they are feeling, sit with that for a moment. Let the child understand how they are feeling in that moment. This is how kids learn what their emotions are. When we coach them through these feelings they learn that they can get help and that emotions can be calmed. You might need to sit in silence or let them rant about everything that made them feel that way. You might receive the pointy end of this as they say why it is your fault, stay calm. They are not thinking clearly at this point, stay with acknowledging the emotion until they calm.
Once they have calmed a little and they are able to think clearer, invite them to problem solve with you. What can we do? What could we do next time? Make sure you are letting them do most of the problem-solving, this is not time to lecture them, they will just switch off. However if they are calm enough you can explain how you felt and what you hope could happen next time.
5. Connection is always key
Co-regulating with your child can actually be an opportunity for connection. Through it they can be real with us in a very raw way, and we still show unconditional love. It is an opportunity for closeness. However, if we have been working on building connection, when co-regulation is needed it will work more smoothly because the trust is already there.
Look for opportunities to connect with your child no matter what their age. Let them direct the connection. If they love cricket, art, Thomas the Tank Engine or Dora the explorer or whatever, use that. You can't expect a child to meet you in your world, you have to meet them in theirs. Spend time talking to them about their interests, this shows that you care about them even if you don't share that interest. Have fun together, play games, blow bubbles, have movie nights, toast marshmallows over a fire, even just reading a book together builds that connection. If that connection is their your job to co-regulate will be that much easier.
Learning to Co-regulate with your child is a skill that you will be able to draw on during stressful times. It helps children and adults to manage emotions while maintaining connection. It will also help children to grow with a sense of security and the ability to eventually self-regulate. Surely, if you are the parent or the child, this is something we could all use regardless of age.