From the moment children are born, they express themselves through emotional reactions. Babies cry or fuss when they are uncomfortable, upset, or have an unmet need, and keep crying until a parent can figure out how to soothe them. It’s not uncommon to see parents bouncing, patting, or singing to their babies; these efforts to calm their baby down are what’s known as co-regulation.
As we grow up, we continue to have emotional reactions to everyday experiences, but the socially acceptable level of those reactions changes. Whereas co-regulation is perfectly normal for babies, as your child gets older, you can prepare them to be more independent and self-regulate their emotional responses. Think of self-regulation as the gas and brake pedals of your child’s “emotional vehicle.” When something is upsetting or uncomfortable, there is an impulse to press down hard on the gas pedal to that emotion. Self-regulation is the skill to step on the brakes to decrease the intensity of the emotional reaction, so that you can think through the problem and identify how to meet your own needs.
Like any new skill, learning self-regulation takes time and is often a stop-and-go process. When thinking about how your specific child can best learn self-regulation techniques, start by thinking back to what soothed them when they were a baby. What did they like to look at or listen to or feel? You can use that to introduce more age-appropriate ways for them to self-soothe.
For example, if your child was soothed by breast-feeding, bottles, or pacifiers, you can offer a breath mint for them to suck on to calm themselves down. If your child liked to be bounced or rocked, a large bouncy ball to sit on, a hammock, or a swing might help. Additionally, almost anyone can benefit from learning calm breathing or muscle relaxation techniques.
Moving from co-regulation to self-regulation is important for every child as they become more independent and their social world expands. For more strategies on how to support your specific child’s self-regulation, reach out to us at any time.