Exploring Emotional Co-Regulation

Jillian Enright

Co-regulation is essential for any relationship

Dysregulation and co-regulation

We all become dysregulated sometimes. This happens when the demands of our environment exceed our ability to deal with them in a calm, skillful manner at that moment in time.

We may cry, shout, stomp our feet, slam doors, or withdraw and shut down. However we respond, when we’re dysregulated, we are less able to think clearly and logically, and are less in control of our behaviours.

When someone we love is upset, there are essentially three different responses we can give them:

  1. Take on their emotions and get swept along with them.
  2. Attempt to ignore the feelings, invalidating and minimizing them, or pretending the feelings don’t even exist.
  3. Offer comfort and co-regulation: be the anchor in their storm, so to speak.

We provide co-regulation for a distressed loved one when our tone, body language, facial expressions, and words all convey calm, comfort, and safety.

“Co-regulation is when we help our children to regulate their emotions by soothing, comforting, and supporting them. Emotional co-regulation is attuning to and supporting another person through our presence.” — Dr. Mona Delahooke

Fighting fire with fire

It is a natural human response to become upset or angry when someone we care about is expressing those emotions. It is natural for our nervous system to respond when someone is acting aggressively or expressing intense feelings.

This is especially true if we have our own issues with emotion regulation, either due to our own divergent neurotype, trauma history, anxiety, or because we’re under a lot of stress at present.

When we experience something our nervous system perceives as a threat, this causes our limbic system to increase its activity, engaging those fight-flight-or-freeze instincts.

It is natural to want to yell when someone is yelling at us. It’s natural to feel hurt or angry when someone is unkind to us.

When we’re parents, or caring for children in any capacity, it’s our job to work through those experiences and feelings outside of our relationship with those children.

When children lose their cool it’s usually because they’ve found themselves in a situation requiring skills beyond their capabilities at that moment.

Our role as adults is to pour water on their fire, by keeping our cool, rather than fuelling their emotions with our own.

Head in the sand

If we feel overwhelmed by our child’s emotions and don’t know how to help work through them we may minimize, invalidate, or dismiss their feelings.

If the adults in our lives did this to us while we were growing up, it’s natural for us to continue this trend, especially if we have not since learned new strategies for coping with intense emotions.

There are certainly downsides to this approach. The child may, in time, learn to suppress their emotions because they’ve been ignored, invalidated, and dismissed.

They may come to mistrust their own experiences and feelings because they’ve been repeatedly told they were “being silly” or “overreacting”.

They may feel their emotional expressions are not acceptable, because the adults in their life reject them when they are dysregulated.

For children, especially young children, their internal experiences are inextricably linked to their sense of self.

When we send children away (i.e. for a “timeout”), we are communicating through our actions that we don’t accept them when they are dysregulated, and they will be left to cope with intense emotions alone.

“Your persistent acceptance of your child’s emotional life will likely facilitate their acceptance of themselves.” — Hughes & Gurney-Smith

This is one of the ways we learn to suppress our emotions: when we’re left with few other options.

Children’s internal experiences are inextricably linked to their sense of self.

Comfort and co-regulation

Co-regulation happens when we remain calm, validate our friend or loved one’s experiences and feelings, and offer a comforting presence.

When we co-regulate with our children, we show them we will keep them safe and continue to love and support them, even when their feelings are big and intense.

“Co-regulating means supporting children as they regain emotional composure, as well as teaching them skills that will help them stay balanced and regulated more easily in the future.” — Siegel & Bryson

When we do this repeatedly over time, our children develop increasingly skillful ways of regulating their own emotions, especially when they know there is a caring adult to whom they can turn when they need help.

“Caring adults, co-regulation of a child’s stress response results in the healthy development of this stress response.” — Dr. Lori Desautels

When we are heard, understood, and cared for this helps us feel safe. Feeling safe allows us to express, process, and work through our emotions.

This often goes a long way to reduce the intensity of those emotions, especially for children who are only beginning to make sense of these experiences.

“Empathy indicates that the emotional signal was understood and now there is less need for it. The distress was shared and is now easier to handle.”— Hughes & Gurney-Smith

When we role-model healthy ways of self-regulating and using our own coping strategies, our children learn alongside us. It’s only after we have connected and co-regulated that their brains will be ready to problem-solve and learn new skills.

© Jillian Enright, ADHD 2e MB

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References

Carrington, J. (2020). Kids These Days: A game plan for (re)connecting with those we teach, lead, and love. IMpress Books.

Delahooke, M. (2019). Beyond Behaviors: using brain science and compassion to understand and solve children’s behavioral challenges. PESI Publishing.

Desautels, L. (2020). Connections Over Compliance: Rewiring our perceptions of discipline. Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing.

Hughes, D., & Gurney-Smith, B. (2020). The Little Book of Attachment: Theory to practice in child mental health with dyadic developmental psychotherapy. W.W. North & Company.

Murphy, L. (2021). Co-Regulation Handbook: Creating competent, authentic roles for kids with social learning differences, so we all stay positively connected through the ups and downs of learning. Linda K. Murphy.

Rajmohan, V., & Mohandas, E. (2007). The limbic system. Indian journal of psychiatry, 49(2), 132–139. https://doi.org/10.4103/0019-5545.33264

Siegel, D. J., & Payne Bryson, T. (2019). The Yes Brain: How to cultivate courage, curiosity, and resilience in your child. Bantam.

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Neurodivergent. 20+ years social work and psychology experience. I write about mental health, neurodiversity, advocacy, education, and parenting. Founder of Neurodiversity MB. CYW, BA Psychology.

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