Co-regulation is an essential concept for parents to understand in moving towards mental wellness for their child. I do a deeper dive on co-regulation HERE and emotional regulation HERE, but wanted to address some of the most common misconceptions, questions, and concerns I get from parents when we talk about co-regulation.
If parents have been raised in a family system with more of an authoritarian parenting style, have beliefs that their child should be “old enough” to do the things they want and need them to do, are used to structuring the environment to remove the majority of barriers and distress for their child, or are just plain exhausted they may be a little skeptical about co-regulation.
I wanted to address the six biggest questions or concerns parents have when I talk about co-regulation and how I respond in session.
1. “If I drop everything to regulate with my child isn't that "giving in"?”
Sometimes parents will mistake co-regulating with their child as "giving in". Like, if they stop and spend time with their child regulating that the child has “won”. BUT this is absolutely not the case. When we co-regulate we are giving the child what they developmentally need to calm their brain and begin to use the higher brain regions again – the parts of the brain that are logical, reasonable, and that are able to do what is needed and expected. One of my favorite quotes from Robyn Gobbel says it all “regulated connected kids who feel safe (and who know what to do) behave well".
2. “So I should just give in or give my child what she wants when she is upset?”
Now sometimes parents use giving into their child as an actual strategy to regulate. Like giving the child who is sobbing and dysregulated at the cash register the candy they want to soothe them after a limit had already been set. This is such a tricky one because in the short term the child will likely regulate once they get what they want quicker than if they do not. However, what this can reinforce and teach a child that dysregulation is a tool to get what they want - ie when I become dysregualted my parents give in. It develops what we call a "secondary gain". This can overall lead to increased levels of dysregulation. It also doesn’t help them widen their window of tolerance and ability to tolerate things in their environment when they are distressed.
3. “So I can’t set limits, boundaries, or have natural consequences when he is upset and tantruming?”. Some parents believe that if the goal is to co-regulate then that means there shouldn’t be any limits, boundaries, or consequences. Well, it’s actually the opposite! Consistent limits and boundaries can actually make a child feel safer and regulate quicker. They know a parent is serious and will follow through. Limits and boundaries for safety can absolutely happen during dysregulation, however the child’s capacity to actually hear and understand consequences should wait until the child is regulated and has access to those reason and logic parts of their brain. Limits or boundaries set should use simple short sentences without any lecture or explaining and should be given with cues of safety.
4. “If I set a limit or give a natural consequence after the tantrum she is just going to get upset again”. Yes, that could be true! AND natural appropriate consequences are what promotes learning to help widen the window of tolerance and ability to handle distress. Short term a child may get upset again quickly, but longer term skills will be built to increase distress tolerance. This also helps parents establish themselves as safe and consistent so the child knows what to expect. Also limits and natural consequences should be given with care, empathy, and connection.
5. “So I should just let my child yell at me or say whatever they want to me?” I have many parents that say “okay - so I just let them walk all over me?”. Well, not exactly. You want to make sure as a parent you give safe and social cues (see above) and at the same time hold limits and boundaries (again see above). One of the boundaries during dysregulation (if a child is physically safe) might be a parent sharing that they are willing to problem solve the math homework as long as the child has a calm voice.
6. “So I can’t show my own emotion?” Yes! Parents can absolutely have and express their own emotions, as long as they are in their window of tolerance. Parents can express they are sad, mad, anxious, or disappointed as long as they do so in a regulated controlled way. If it comes out with yelling, violent behavior, the child feeling like they need to comfort the parent, or the parent centering themselves it is likely the parent needs a break. This might mean taking some time to be alone in their room (modeling), regulating themselves, or seeking connection from one of their social supports. It is always better to leave and have a break to regulate than staying in a conversation or situation where the parent is going to go out of their window of tolerance.
7."Why should I change when yelling works?”. Yup, sometimes it does. This is usually because young people feel a threat or danger cue from the parent and feel unsafe and fearful to the point they can regulate enough to get through the situation. Usually the feeling is repressed and the “expected response” is given at the expense of feeling safe within the relationship. This usually leads to more dysregulation down the road (because if yelling “solved” the problem families would not be presenting for therapy) and harm to the attachment relationship. If we expect children to be regulated we need to model regulation as adults.
Want to learn more about Play Therapy and the neuroscience of regulation? Check out this training HERE!
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I'm Ann Meehan, an LPCC, RPT-S, and EMDR Consultant. I help other therapists grow in their passions as play therapists, trauma therapists,and child and adolescent therapists.