What is co-regulation and how to help kids manage emotions

emotional management parenting tips Jan 26, 2023
What is co-regulation and how to help kids manage emotions

We are hearing the terms “emotional regulation”, and “co-regulation” more often in child development, parenting circles, and from pediatricians — but do you really know what they mean and why they’re important?  

According to Psychology Today, emotional regulation is the ability to exert control over one’s own emotional state. This can include rethinking a challenging situation to reduce anger or anxiety, hiding visible signs of sadness or fear, or focusing on reasons to feel happy or calm.  

In simple terms, emotional regulation is the ability to manage your emotions.  When you are able to soothe your nervous system and calm yourself down when you experience heightened emotions, you are able to emotionally self-regulate.

Why is this so key for children's development?  Because we are not born with emotional regulation skills.  As children, we don’t have control over our emotions and nervous system and we cannot self-regulate.  Children rely on their parents, caregivers, and other adults in their lives to help them regulate their heightened emotional states through co-regulation.

Co-regulation is when we, the parent or caregiver, use our mature nervous system and emotional regulation skills to guide and support our child’s immature nervous system.  We help them calm down until they get control over their emotions on their own and learn to self-regulate.

How do kids learn to self-regulate?  Through lots and lots of practice going from dysregulated to regulated.  Kids need to lose control of their emotions (dysregulate) and have a caregiver help calm them down (co-regulate), over and over again until they are able to do it by themselves.

What does co-regulation look like?

A parent picks up a crying baby, holds them chest to chest, and calmly rocks them while rubbing their back to help the infant settle down.

A pre-schooler is playing at the playground and throws a fit about leaving.  The parent acknowledges the disappointment while calmly steering the child to the car.

A teenager rants and raves about not being able to go to a party with friends.  The parent remains calm while reminding the teen of the rules and consequences, as well as the parent’s responsibility to keep the teen safe.

The common factor in each example — and the key to co-regulation is the parent remaining calm. 

Why is staying calm so important?  Emotions are contagious, and whoever is most connected to their emotions will have the most influence.  Have you ever been in a good mood and then have someone in a bad mood bring you down?  One person in a bad mood can affect the energy and bring down a whole house if you’re not careful.  

Unfortunately, when our kids are having a hard time self-regulating, their feelings are BIG and they are deeply connected to them, which can give them the most influence.  This is why parents can find their frustration and anxiety levels rising in response to their children’s heightened emotions.

So what do we do as parents to remain calm so we can help our kids co-regulate?

1 - First and foremost, give yourself some grace.  Expecting that you will be able to remain calm in every situation is unrealistic, and you will put yourself in a position where you will never measure up.  

If you don’t have grace and space for yourself when you are frustrated, you’re not likely to have grace and space for your kids and their heightened emotions either.

2 - Make sure that you are filling your own cup.  If you are consumed with taking care of everyone else and their needs, but you are not taking care of your own, you will get very resentful — and it’s difficult to remain calm when you are filled with resentment.

3 - Add some additional tools to your parenting toolbox to help your kids navigate feelings. As a parent, it helps to understand how your child’s brain is developing and what is driving their feelings.  I explain this in my How To Parent Through BIG Feelings workshop.  If you didn’t catch it live, you can catch the replay here.

Not all adults learned how to self-regulate as a child, and some parents need help finding their own calm first so they are in a position to help their kids co-regulate.  If you’ve been struggling with co-regulation, please know that you are not alone and know that help and support are available. Schedule a free call here to learn more about all of the different resources available and how I can help.

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