When I became a mother seven years ago, I had no concept of the idea of emotional co-regulation. That might be because when I became a parent, I had no real plan at all. I mean, I knew a few basic things. I wanted to try to breastfeed. I’d be a stay-at-home mom as long as we could swing it. We weren’t going to spank our kids. We had thought about how we’d parent and made a few decisions, but we couldn’t really imagine my child older than a baby. I mean, we had never done this before.
When our first son was born, we defaulted to a fairly gentle style of parenting. We placed our child’s feelings at the forefront, and we endeavored to correct him without the use of punishments.
My husband and I spent a lot of time during his toddler years helping him put words to his emotions. We did what we could to be there for him when they got a little out of his control. We memorized the little songs from Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, and we used them to help him calm back down. Sometimes, just singing, “It’s okay to feel sad sometimes. Little by little, you’ll feel better again,” was enough to dry his tears and help him feel a sense of calm.
It was always evident that the calmer I could be, the calmer he would become. By the time he was three or four, he would attempt to help me regulate my emotions too. If he saw me upset or angry, he would come to me with affection, and remind me to just relax and breathe.
As a result, he is now almost seven years old and he is pretty great at letting us know what he needs and how we can help. He is also really good at calming himself now or working through the tough stuff without intervention.
Emotional co-regulation completely shaped the way I parent my kids, even though I had no idea what I was even doing at first.
Emotional co-regulation can sound complicated when you look at from a scientist’s point of view. My head started spinning the first time I read about it. Trying to fully understand the way it affects a developing brain, and all the chemical processes that make it work was a lot. Luckily as a parent, you only have to understand it as a simple concept. (Thank goodness!)
Emotional co-regulation is basically the practice of staying in tune with your child’s emotions, reacting to their big feelings with patience and understanding, and helping them learn strategies to cope and calm themselves down.
It’s called co-regulation because it depends on your own ability to regulate your emotions as you help them regulate theirs. It is a reciprocal practice. You share their positive feelings with enthusiasm, and you help them understand the negative feelings. You make it your job to learn how to best comfort your child through their various emotions without using isolation or punishment.
They learn how to remain in control when they are very upset. They use techniques you teach them and watch your demeanor during their struggles. Co-regulation is the first step toward helping your child regulate their own emotions independently. That is obviously a hugely important part of successful adulthood.
This intentional connection and gentle way of approaching my children is even more crucial with my second son. He’s three years old, brilliant, adorable, and autistic.
The wonderful psychologist who helped diagnose him asked me a lot of questions about his control of his emotions and our parenting style. She was especially interested in our ideas about punishments and consequences. She made sure I knew that punitive parenting was absolutely ineffective for most kids whose autism presents like Walker’s. I was glad when she encouraged us to stay the course with our gentle approach no matter how challenging it might become. She recommended some techniques to help Walker when he becomes overwhelmed by his feelings or his sensory processing challenges. Most of her suggestions have roots in emotional co-regulation.
My kids couldn’t be more different, but intentional co-regulation works wonders for both of them. I can easily tell when my oldest child needs some help regulating, but my little guy is tougher to read. When he starts to lose control of his emotions, he rarely goes into meltdown mode. He tends to shut down instead. When I notice Walker wandering aimlessly around the house, not interacting with any of us, I know he needs help.
If I remain calm, take him somewhere quiet, and speak quietly to him about simple concepts, it brings him back to me. A lot of parents employ counting techniques to help a child regain control, and I have found that to be very helpful. I always know he’s ready to settle down when he is willing to count his fingers or toes with me.
Now, let’s be real: What I am saying here is that I do my best to practice these skills with my kids when they’re having a tough time. My husband and I know our kids can’t always chill out when they need to, so we help them get there. But I am not even pretending that our life is all sweet snuggles and effortlessly regulating each other’s emotions without a hitch. I’ve got two real-life kids, and I’m a real-life mom. Sometimes I shout or make a choice I wish I could take back. I’m a human being, and I just can’t always make myself remain calm when they’re losing control.
I still think my kids benefit from my effort and my awareness of their needs. I benefit, too. Kids who can calm themselves down make for a more peaceful home all around.
I’m thankful for all the information available to us as parents these days. It can be a blessing and a curse, but I’m into it. Learning the basic concept of emotional co-regulation has made me a more effective parent. I think it’s worth it for every parent to give it a shot.