Updated: Oct 15, 2022
What is Co-Regulation? “Co” meaning joint; mutual; common. “Regulation” meaning control or maintain the rate or speed of (a machine or process) so that it operates properly.
Now, comparing a child to a machine may not be the most intuitive analogy but if we look at the nervous system as a machine, it may paint a new picture of big emotions.
When a machine breaks down or is not working properly, we do not stand there and wait for the machine to “get itself together” or tell the machine that “everything is okay, stop acting like that.” We do not walk away from it and expect it to fix itself or blame it for breaking down. What do we do with broken machines? We pull out the manual and try and decipher at which point of the process the machine has broken down. We open the machine up and take a look inside to find the root cause of the issue. This is how we need to look at children, and all humans for that matter. There is always a root cause for behavior. When was the last time they ate? Did they get enough sleep last night? Is the noise in the room too loud? Behavior is communication.
Now, where does the “co” part come into all of this? I am glad you asked.
Co-regulation is the first step of self-regulation. It is all the things you do (or did) naturally when your child was an infant. When they were fussy or upset, did you notice that you would sway your body side to side, or "shhh" slowly, or swaddle them and turn on a white noise machine? Think about it, when your baby was calm, you felt calm. When your baby was crying and upset, you felt a heightened sense of arousal or state of fight/flight/freeze. This is because your nervous systems are in sync.
Co-regulation is supporting another being to find their calm, but the only way to do this is to make sure you yourself are in a regulated state as well. It is, in simple terms, helping another being feel safe among their emotions.
Co-regulation is the beginning of self-regulation, but that does not mean it ends once your child is able to choose tools and calm themselves down independently. Co-regulation is required throughout a human’s entire lifetime. A human’s brain is growing from conception to the age of 26. (1) Did you realize your frontal lobe, the part of your brain that is in charge of higher order thinking and processing is not fully developed until 26? TWENTY-SIX. That means that even though someone is able to handle their emotions better than a 3 year old, they still require assistance with new problems and upsetting events as they get older- no matter what teens may believe.
I would like to leave you with what I consider “The ingredients for co-regulation”. These ingredients can be utilized and modified with any human from age 0-100. I went back and forth on the acronym SINES (“signs”) and SNEIS (“sneeze”) to describe the 5 main ingredients for Co-regulation. I personally enjoy saying sneeze but I thought I would leave it up to you to choose what makes sense to you. Without further adieu, here it is!
Ingredients: SINES Support Inner Calm Nonverbal Communication Emotion identification Sensory -or- SNEIS Support Non-verbal Communication Emotion identification Inner Calm Sensory
Support: Focus on supporting your child rather than wanting to stop and fix the emotion. If we are only focused on stopping the behavior, we are missing a wonderful opportunity to teach the child appropriate ways to handle stressors. When we shift our mindset to support this lesson, we model that we are able to hold space and contain big emotions allowing a child to feel safe to explore these feelings. *Disclaimer* We know that life is not set up to spend 10-15 minutes helping your child regulate every single time they become upset, but we are going for "good enough" parenting. As long as we have the intention to support our children and repair ruptures, this will be more than enough.
Inner-calm: Now, in my opinion, here comes one of the hardest ingredients. You must be regulated yourself before you can regulate another being. Let me say that again, your child CANNOT be more regulated than you. If this means you need to take a few deep belly breaths, get a glass of cold water or turn up some music and move your body, that is more than acceptable. But tell your child what you are doing and why you are doing it- this will normalize big emotions and model appropriate behaviors. You can also be honest with your feelings in this moment, for instance, saying "I am having a hard time right now, my heart is beating fast and my muscles feel tight. I need to get some water or I need to chew some ice. I will be back in one minute."
Non-verbal Communication: The most important form of communication, your body language and tone of voice. Speak in a calm, low tone. Once your child feels your heightened arousal and hears it in your voice, they will match that level in their own nervous system. Practice displaying relaxed shoulders, open arms, relaxed hands & un-clench your fists and your jaw. Make eye contact with your child and get on their eye-level to maintain presence in this moment to show them that you are physically and emotionally there for them.
Emotion identification: Label what you are observing. Something as simple as “Your eyebrows are down and you your hands are in a fist. You look like you might be sad because you wanted that ball,” facilitates emotional literacy and allows your child to later describe their emotions and ask for help rather than hit, scream or cry. (For older humans, this can be summarizing what they are communicating to you or stating what you are observing from their actions and clarifying if it matches how they are feeling.)
Sensory: My favorite tool of all! This can be as simple as a big bear hug or rocking your child back and forth. You can try sour candy, ice on their wrists, lavender or citrus essential oils, or jumping up and down. Whatever gets your child’s sensory system regulated, and yours too!
I hope this acronym is helpful when working with your kiddos! Which ingredient is most challenging for you to implement? Which ingredient is easiest? References: (1) Anatomy of the Child’s Nervous System. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.fairview.org/sitecore/content/Fairview/Home/Patient-Education/Articles/English/a/n/a/t/o/Anatomy_of_the_Childs_Nervous_System_40167