The Basics of Co-Regulation
Updated: Aug 25, 2022
In my last blog post I identified ways in which parents can support their children who experience back-to-school anxiety. The steps I outlined are part of the process of co-regulation. Co-regulation is "the supportive process between caring adults and children, youth, or young adults that fosters self-regulation development..." (2017). What is self-regulation, then? Self-regulation is the skill of managing one's thoughts, feelings and behaviours to facilitate goal attainment and maintenance of well-being. Self-regulation is learned over the course of one's development, and is best honed through co-regulation with a caregiver. Healthy co-regulation is also a feature of secure attachment relationships (you can read more about attachment here).
So what does healthy co-regulation look like?
An important step in co-regulation is the caregiver's self-awareness. This entails noticing your own thoughts and emotions before, and in response to your child's distress. This is important because it enables you to have better control of your response when you are aware of what you are thinking and how you feel. It may be necessary for you to regulate your own emotions (calming down, taking a break, etc) before you are able to effectively support your child.
Attunement is critical in fostering secure attachment bonds and developing a healthy relationship with your child. It's value in co-regulation is rooted in how it teaches your child to take note of their own thoughts and feelings, and be validated in the expression of those feelings.
As a caregiver, you can attune to your child's needs by being a "feelings detective", noticing changes in mood and behaviour, and responding appropriately to your child. These needs may be physical (food, rest, safety, temperature control, etc) or emotional (shame, disappointment, distress). When it comes to emotional needs, children often need help to articulate them. One way to do this is to help them develop the vocabulary for their emotions. You can use tools such as a feelings list or emoji chart (click on the images to learn more about how to get these charts).
Validation is also valuable in co-regulation and self-regulation. It is important for your child to know that what they feel is real and valid, despite the fact that their fear or their perception of the experience may be irrational. This allows them the permission to identify and express how they feel without shame.
When in distress, it is difficult for rational thinking or problem-solving to take place. This video is a good teaching tool to help explain why this is the case:
Self-soothing is therefore a meaningful part of co-regulation, and this is an opportunity for the caregiver to teach the child not only how to identify their feelings, but seek relief in distress.
Different children respond in different ways to various calming techniques. You can explore with your child what they may find soothing for them using their senses. For some children, tactile tools (eg. slime, stress ball, feather) are most effective. For others, they are better soothed by pictures or sound.
The strategy used may also depend on your your child's disposition. If they are more withdrawn and inactive, it may be better to identify more stimulating activities (eg. going for a walk, playing the Wii). If they are over-stimulated, then a less stimulating activity may be more suitable (eg. reading, yoga, guided visualization).
Problem-solving and Perspective-taking
In addition to finding relief from distress, problem-solving and perspective-taking are valuable life skills to teach your kids. They are essential in helping them navigate relationships and situational contexts. You can help them identify the positives, explore viable options, make a "pros-and-cons" list, and look at the situation from another point of view.
Structuring the Environment
Finally, a child's environment helps to shape their life experiences, including their sense of safety, well-being, and belonging. There are many environmental factors that can affect a child's emotional well-being including their relationships, rules and structure in the home, as well as how well their physical needs are met. It is therefore imperative that to foster a child's mental/emotional wellness, caregivers need to structure the child's environment to ensure this. This includes setting fair and effective household rules, structuring their time with an appropriate schedule and seeing that their physical needs are taken care of (proper nutrition, regular medical/dental check-ups, adequate rest, etc).
Of course, this is not an exhaustive list, and there are many other ways caregivers can help develop self-regulation skills in children. You may explore additional tools and resources listed at the end of this post.
If you feel that you or someone you know may benefit from therapy, feel free to contact me for a brief complimentary by calling 416-688-5274, or booking an initial consult here.
Rosanbalm, K.D., & Murray, D.W. (2017). Caregiver Co-regulation Across Development: A Practice Brief. OPRE Brief #2017-80. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, US. Department of Health and Human Services.