From Co-Regulation to Self-Regulation

What is self-regulation?

Self-regulation is the ability to manage our thoughts, feelings and actions. The ability to self-regulate starts developing during infancy, right the way through to adolescence. Learning to share, resolve conflict and problem solving are all related to the ability to self-regulate.

What is co-regulation?

Mother and child having a moment
Photo by Andriyko Podilnyk on Unsplash

Before children can self-regulate, they first need to co-regulate.

This is where the parent/caregiver has been responsive to their baby or child’s needs and the baby/child develops the understanding someone is there to meet their physical and emotional needs and that they can rely totally on that person.

This is the reason it is important that parents/caregivers are responsive when emotions overwhelm their child. Their response allows children to feel secure and safe and know that this person can be relied upon. When babies and children are distressed, this can impact hugely on a parent’s response, particularly if your child is exhibiting challenging behaviour or you yourself are exhausted because of lack of sleep and support. It can be difficult in that moment to not be reactive. However, the goal is to be responsive so you are calm and in control. This way, you will show your baby/child that they are safe, that they are loved, that you can be relied upon and that you will help them in that situation.

How can I respond well?

Before you respond, take some deep breaths, calm yourself, get down to child’s level and be ready to give comfort and support when they are ready.

We must be practical and realistic. No-one is perfect all the time and you are going to experience times when you are more reactive than responsive, but if you open yourself up to learning these new approaches you will move forward. It might be a slow process, but in time your child will learn how to manage difficult emotions and know that they can look to you for guidance when they need to.

As I have said in previous blogs it is important to have realistic and developmentally appropriate boundaries and expectations. It is not about allowing children to do what they want, when they want. Instead, it is about recognising and respecting the emotions which may follow. However, you as parent/caregiver need to self-regulate before entering a situation.

Some Tips to help:

  1. A woman meditating on a beach
    Photo by Chelsea Gates on Unsplash

    As stated earlier: breathe and take a few seconds to regulate yourself.

  2. Approach your child and the situation calmly (responding not reacting).
  3. Validate your child’s emotion. Label the emotion you feel is being expressed and where possible how that feeling may feel in the body.
  4. Be present with them. If you need to move them away from the situation (particularly if you are not on your own), direct them to another room or space. Allow them to work through the feeling with you there and help them to be calm.
  5. Mirror taking deep breaths; do it with them. You should also try to do this at times they are calm as well, so in time it becomes familiar and automatic to them.
  6. Sensory Bags can be really useful for children to refocus and help them to calm. These can help with ‘grounding’ and bringing them back to a ‘baseline’.
    Examples for your bag: You can have a soft toy in there, Glitter Jar, Rainstick, different senses (aromatherapy oils can be good, but make sure they are safe for children) or something like a lavender pillow. Fidget Toys can also be useful. Anything which uses the senses can help.
  7. When your child is ready, you can be there ready with a cuddle and reassurance that you love them.
  8. Once calm and settled, you can then explore some next steps. Encourage your child (if they are old enough) to problem solve with you to decide how you move forwards from this. It might be revisiting the behaviour (with understanding and calmness) and reviewing what they could do differently next time in terms of their reaction. If they do not have the language at this stage, you can prompt them with some ideas.
  9. Try to understand what is behind the behaviour, then you can prepare yourself for those situations which may provoke an unwanted behaviour to arise. Look at the situation from your child’s point of view. E.g. They are playing happily, and you need to go out. Think through how you can prepare them for this, give them a children’s egg timer (which are usually colourful and bigger than ones we would use in the kitchen) to help prepare them for how long they have.
  10. Can you make transitions easier for them? – Let them take a toy out with you, have a visual routine board so your child can see what is coming next in the schedule and ask them what activity they would like to do later.
  11. Remember, as you are learning new ways of connecting with your child, that they are also learning new skills and understanding more. If, as adults, we still have occasional meltdowns or just feel very overwhelmed how much more challenging are those feelings for your child when they don’t yet have the skills to self-regulate.
  12. …and finally… be kind to yourself! Take small steps forward and don’t beat yourself up when you know you could have responded to a situation better. Reflect and move on.