Parenthood is a beautiful journey filled with ups and downs. One moment it’s snuggles and making cookies, the next it’s grocery store tantrums and the relentless ‘Are we there yet’. But for some children, the struggles extend beyond the typical toddler strop. These days children are exposed to more stressors than ever, and even with our best intentions, their nervous systems can easily become overwhelmed and dysregulated. From a breakdown within the family unit to the death of a parent; playground bullies or dietary toxins, these events can all contribute to a dysregulated nervous system. Enter “co regulation”. A powerful tool in supporting and nurturing a child’s emotional well-being.[*] So, what is co regulation? In this article, we will delve into the world of co regulation strategies and explore how parents can effectively employ this technique to create a strong foundation for their child’s emotional development.
What is Co Regulation?
Co regulation is an important part of human interaction, especially in parent-child relationships.[*] In simple terms, it is the ability of a parent or caregiver to help regulate a child’s emotions, allowing them to feel safe, secure, and understood. This typically involves providing comfort and guidance to the child as they navigate their feelings and reactions. Co regulation plays a significant role in shaping a child’s ability to self-regulate into their adult years.[*]
What is Nervous System Co regulation?
Co regulating with kids is more than just soothing emotional distress; it plays a crucial role in regulating a child’s nervous system. When children are upset or anxious, their nervous systems can quickly become dysregulated, resulting in a “fight or flight” response. If exposure to stressors is prolonged, they may struggle to maintain a resilient nervous system. Instead of bouncing back from a stressful event, they become stuck in a fight or flight loop – even when the ‘danger’ has passed. By practicing co regulation strategies, parents can provide a sense of safety and support that helps the child’s nervous system switch from a state of heightened arousal to a calmer state. This not only helps the child manage their immediate emotional state but also contributes to the development of resilient nervous systems that can better handle stress in the long run.
Why Do Children Need Nervous System Co regulation?
Children are still developing their ability to manage their emotions and reactions effectively. Co regulation is a crucial bridge between a child’s heightened emotional states and a sense of calm. By helping kids in managing their emotions, parents set the stage for healthy emotional development.[*][*]
Signs Your Child May Benefit From Co Regulation Strategies:
It’s totally normal for children to encounter challenges and difficulties in their daily lives. But if their emotional response to these situations seems exaggerated or ‘bigger’ than expected, or they appear to be struggling to move on from these events, they may start showing signs that they need help. These signs may include:
- Intense tantrums or meltdowns over seemingly minor issues.
- Difficulty transitioning between activities.
- Frequent mood swings.
- Trouble settling down for sleep due to anxious thoughts.
- Overwhelm in new or unfamiliar situations.
- Struggling to cope with major life changes, such as a bereavement, school or home move, etc.
Benefits of Co regulation Parenting
As a parent, you may experience:
- Strengthened parent-child bond.
- Enhanced ability to empathize with a child’s emotions.
- Reduced parental stress due to improved communication.
- Increased confidence in handling challenging situations.
And your child may benefit from:
- Improved emotional regulation skills.
- Enhanced self-awareness and self-esteem.
- Greater resilience in the face of stress.
- Better communication and problem-solving skills.
How to Co Regulate With a Child
When learning how to co regulate with a child, there are several approaches you can take. But the most effective co regulation strategies will be those you can tailor to your child’s individual needs. Here are a few ideas to get you started that can be personalized according to age, sensory sensitivities, learning difficulties, specific emotional challenges, etc.:
- Create a Safe Space: Create an environment where your child feels safe expressing their emotions without judgment. Make the space both fun and soothing. This could be a blanket fort or fabric teepee, etc. Let’s not pretend we wouldn’t enjoy this as adults too.
- Active Listening: Pay full attention when your child talks, validating their feelings.
- Be a Role Model: Demonstrate healthy emotional expression and regulation as an individual and within your other relationships.
- Use Empathy: Show understanding and compassion toward your child’s emotions.
- Offer Comfort: Provide physical comfort through hugs or gentle touch during distress.
- Establish Routines: Predictable routines can help children feel secure.
- Breathing Exercises: Teach simple breathing techniques to help manage stress.
- Play Together: Engage in playful activities to diffuse tension and build connection.
- Use Affirmations: Encourage positive self-talk during moments of distress. We love this child-friendly affirmation book from Louise Hay.
- Mindfulness Practice: Teach mindfulness techniques to help your child stay present.
Co regulation Strategies for Parents
The key to co regulating with your child is in modelling healthy co-regulation within your own life.[*] Your child will benefit from witnessing the way that you show up for yourself, and in your other relationships. Practice incorporating more of these co regulation strategies into your daily routine:
- Deep Breathing: Practice deep, slow breaths to manage your own stress.
- Self-Reflection: Regularly assess your own emotional state.
- Seek Support: Connect with other parents to share experiences and advice.
- Prioritize Self-Care: Take time for yourself to recharge.
- Develop Healthy Coping Mechanisms: Find healthy ways to manage your own stress.
- Stay Calm: This will not always be realistic or possible, but when it is, model a composed demeanour in challenging moments.
- Engage in Adult Play: Pursue hobbies and activities that bring you joy.
- Maintain Boundaries: Setting limits helps both you and your child feel secure.
- Practice Mindfulness: Bring awareness to your own emotions and reactions.
- Accept Imperfection: Understand that mistakes are part of the parenting journey.
Co regulation Parenting Don’ts
Co regulation strategies for parents can have a positive impact when implemented compassionately. But it’s equally important to know what not to do. As parents and human beings, we are not and cannot be perfect, but trying to minimize the following will go a long way in raising an emotionally healthy child.
Note: You won’t always get this right – and that’s ok.
- Dismissing Emotions: Avoid belittling or ignoring your child’s feelings.
- Overreacting: Respond calmly instead of reacting impulsively.
- Punitive Measures: Opt for teaching moments rather than punishment.
- Ignoring Your Own Needs: Remember that self-care is essential.
- Fostering Independence: Encourage independence while providing support.
- Comparisons: Avoid comparing your child’s behavior to others’.
- Disregarding Routines: Consistency helps create a sense of security.
- Dismissing Fears: Take your child’s worries seriously.
- Neglecting Communication: Maintain open lines of conversation.
- Projecting Emotions: Separate your emotions from your child’s.
Self-Regulation vs. Co regulation: Creating a Healthy Foundation for Your Child
Before guiding your child, you need to master self-regulation. You know when the flight attendant tells you to put your own oxygen mask on first in an emergency situation? This is the same thing. Parents must manage their own emotions before assisting their child. When parents can self-regulate, they provide a stable foundation for healthy co regulation.[*]
Can Co regulation Help If Your Child Already Has a Very Dysregulated Nervous System?
Absolutely. Co regulation is a powerful tool even for children who already have a dysregulated nervous system. The key is consistent and patient practice. The process may take longer for children with deeper levels of dysregulation, but with time, parents can help their child gradually learn to regulate their emotions and responses. It’s important to approach this journey with empathy and a willingness to adapt techniques to suit your child’s unique needs.
If your child needs extra assistance to manage their dysregulation, we highly recommend the Safe and Sound Protocol. This music-therapy intervention has been designed specifically to support emotional regulation and ease symptoms of nervous system dysregulation.
How to Co Regulate with a Child: 10 Tips for Co Regulating with Children of Different Ages:
Co regulation strategies will vary dependant on the child’s individual needs, and will also change as the child progresses into adulthood. Here are some easy co regulation prompts to support children of different ages:[*]
- Infants: Respond promptly to cries to build trust.
- Toddlers: Offer comfort and distraction during tantrums. Use fun stories to help them identify and express emotions.
- Kindergarteners: Play emotion-based games to boost emotional literacy.
- Elementary School: Teach problem-solving techniques for conflicts.
- Middle Schoolers: Introduce mindfulness practices for stress relief. Encourage journaling to process complex emotions.
- High Schoolers: Encourage independent activity while offering guidance. Make yourself available for open discussions when they face challenges and big decisions.
- Young Adults: Maintain a supportive presence as they navigate adulthood.
Co regulation is a powerful tool that helps parents support their childs emotional journey. By creating a safe and nurturing environment, offering comfort and guidance, and prioritizing self-regulation, parents (and other adults) can build the foundation for a childs emotional well-being. Remember, parenting is a continuous learning curve, so allow yourself room to fail while bringing love, empathy, and compassion – for yourself and your child.
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