In a previous blog of ours, “Using ‘The Hand Model of the Brain’ to Explain our Reaction to Stress”, we discussed how children can get overwhelmed by big emotions and throw tantrums. Today, we’re going to give you practical tips to help your kids manage these big feelings and develop self-regulation skills through a process known as co-regulation.
What Exactly is Co-Regulation?
Co-regulation is not about temporarily calming a child down, but it’s the process through which a child develops the ability to self-regulate in the long term (and literally wires the self-regulation pathways in your child’s brain).
A critical factor in this process is the presence of a reliable caregiver. The caregiver acts as a ‘second brain’ — an extra calming center that brings in support for the child with their own state of nervous system regulation.
There are three categories of support that caregivers can provide to promote co-regulation:
- Warm relationship interactions, characterised by affection, respect, responsiveness, and unconditional support of their child
- A soothing and safe environment with consistent and predictable routines and expectations
- Teaching and practising self-regulation skills with your child (and yourself!)
Of course, every child experiences and expresses their feelings in different ways. Some have a calmer temperament and find it easier to regulate their feelings, while others are more restless. The way that children respond to external stimuli, like noise, light, or even touch, also differs. It’s important to find out what works best for your child and that you’re consistent in your efforts to become the anchor in the storm and provide co-regulation for your child.
Your child relies on you to be the calm and safe anchor for their dysregulated nervous systems when they are flooded with big emotions (which means their thinking brains are switched off, flooded with cortisol), and their bodies are pumping adrenalin so often need to move or lash out in fight or flight responses!
Co-regulation starts with regulating your own feelings first and then approaching your child in a calm and understanding manner.
Co-Regulation Techniques to Tame Meltdowns
Here are some co-regulation techniques to try with your child when they’re struggling with big emotions or experiencing a meltdown.
1. Maintain your own calm and label feelings
This is the most important co-regulation technique. Responding to a child’s anger with yelling, threats, isolation or punishment will only upset them more, especially if they have experienced trauma. Calm yourself down first and then hear them out. Take a few deep breaths, and then address your child slowly, at their level, using a calm voice.
Try to label their feelings and sympathize with them. For example, if your child is upset because their sibling broke their favourite toy, you can say, “I can see you are feeling so mad right now. Your fists are clenched, and your face is tense. You are feeling angry that Peter broke your toy.”
It sounds simple, but what you’re doing here is actually promoting whole-brain integration by explaining and labelling the sensations and emotions of the right brain and linking them to verbal meaning on the left side of the brain. The more you repeat this process of helping your child’s brain make sense of experiences when it is overwhelmed and stressed, the easier it is for the neural wiring around self-regulation to form in your child’s brain – self-regulation is contingent upon receiving enough co-regulation inputs!
Your child will then feel more heard and understood. Encourage them to talk more about their feelings until they calm down and the ‘wise owl’, prefrontal cortex takes over and the thinking brain comes back online. Now, they can start thinking clearly and you can work together to find a solution to their problem.
2. Breathe together
Slow breathing is a basic mindfulness practice that has proven to be very effective in reducing stress and anger. Start practising a few slow, deep breaths. While you do so, ask your child to sit beside you so that they can feel the rhythm of your breath or join you. See if you can count 10 deep breaths and then check-in and see if the brain is feeling calmer. If not repeat the process.
3. Calm their senses
Weighted blankets can have a containing and soothing effect, so encourage your child to wrap themselves in one and relax. If you don’t have one, anything that is soft to touch and cosy will work too. You can also create a relaxing atmosphere by lowering the lights and noise level in the house or by playing some relaxing music and having some cuddle or hand massage time on the couch. Sensory squishy toys or playdough can also help ground the senses and nervous system and settle a brain in overwhelm.
4. Connect through touch
Touch is a powerful way to connect emotionally with your child. Ask if it’s ok to rub their back, feet, or hands. Draw simple shapes on their backs, like the sun or a flower, and then ask them to do the same on you. These simple activities bring you closer and make it easier for the child to open up and share their anxieties and fears with you (which are often driving the big emotions and meltdowns!).
Co-regulation is essential to building self-regulation capacity and new neural pathways to strengthen the wise owl part of the brain. Self-regulation skills are powerful tools that reinforce safety, soothe anxiety, and promote whole-brain integration — all of which are pivotal for a child’s mental health, healthy relationships, well-being and later success in all aspects of their lives.
Remember that co-regulation techniques are most effective when they are consistently practiced. Safety and connection are the most important needs of the brain and need to be prioritised in our interactions with our children – especially when they are showing you how out of control and stressed they feel by melting down.
By building our own emotional capacity and resiliency as parents, addressing our own pasts which often get triggered by our children’s behaviours, and becoming the anchor in our children’s emotional storms, we can provide the essential ingredients to wire healthy brains and nervous systems in our children.
Through co-regulation, attunement, presence, play, and connection we can grow better brains for the next generation in our care!