Co-Regulation and Children

Co-regulation can be described as someone borrowing another person’s calm nervous system in times when they are in distress.

Regulating is what we do to return to our emotional baseline and move through an intense feeling.

This often takes place without any dialogue whatsoever. Children and adults each have complex and powerful nervous systems that help us communicate with one another. Kids can often learn how to handle their distress by watching an adult process their own difficult emotions. This concept is very helpful when working with kids because they often look to stable caregivers to help themselves regulate. 

Mother comforting child

Parents can, and often do, help their child without even realizing it. When a child is anxious about monsters or the dark, the parent’s calm nervous system can silently communicate safety. This communication can transpire without any verbal recognition and can be conveyed through scent, body posture, breathing, and pupil dilation, as an example. When the parent is calm (even though there is a possible monster under the child’s bed) it helps communicate to the child that the environment is likely safe because their attachment figure is experiencing the same stressor – yet they remain relaxed.

co-regulating - mother and daughter doing yoga

As parents, we can be intentional about staying calm and regulating our emotions so that we model these reactions for our children in a warm, responsive, and stable environment. Children who are near a regulated adult can find a sense of calm themselves.

We know that children tend to learn through observation, so when our child watches how we respond to distress – such as deep breathing, taking a moment to ourselves, repeating a mantra, or even just closing our eyes for a second – they are learning how to cope with their own distress. A parent’s rooted and grounded wisdom for feelings can be borrowed by the child, observed, and learned.

Co-regulating can be thought of as the practice of being a gentle guide moving children towards the ability to soothe and manage challenging emotions on their own.

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