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Can co-regulation teach self-regulation?

“A child who is self-regulated can wait a few minutes if dinner is late, concentrate on homework even if they want to go outside and play, or tolerate car rides. They can sit until the recess bell rings or hold on to a question for a time rather than blurting it out while the teacher is talking. A self-regulated child can use words to navigate a conflict with a peer on the playground rather than simply pushing or hitting to get their way. Self-regulation allows children to adjust to life’s challenges by using their own internal resources rather than needing an adult to navigate or mediate difficulties for them or with them.”

Dr. Mona Delahooke in Brain-body Parenting

To those of us with Wonderfully Wired children, these words might sound like make-believe. They certainly sound like the kind of behavioural stuff we dream of!

Self-regulation is the magic bullet that our kids need for academic success, happy relationships and healthy mental states. The good news, says Dr Mona Delahooke, is that research proves we can nurture self-regulation.

Self-regulation develops through co-regulation.

In Episode 8 of the Wonderfully Wired podcast Dr Delahooke got very excited as she shared with me the extensive research which indicates that the kind of self-regulation we long for in our children grows through co-regulation. Our ultimate aim, the child who can self-regulate, comes from a sharing of connection through our emotional tone.

When our child acts out, throws a tantrum or becomes upset, we respond with a certain tone and interaction which makes the child either feel calm and safe or alternatively, escalates the behaviour.

I ‘m like you, I’m tempted to fix, teach or instruct a child struggling to control emotions, feeling anxious or acting out. However, Dr Delahooke encourages us to Witness Distress first.

I wrestle a bit with this: it feels so impotent to not jump into fix mode, not respond swiftly with a consequence, or not move to behaviour management. But neuroscience suggests that this witnessing of distress is a strategic tool in growing a child’s mental health and resilience.

Co-regulation is what builds a child’s future ability to manage life’s ongoing challenges flexibly, face adversity, and form loving attachments with others. It also sets up a powerful modeling of empathy and caring for others. And it’s a great way to make deposits into our child’s body budget.

Dr Delahooke and I had a fun discussion about how often our first responsive interaction is not what a child needs. A crying baby, completely unable to get what he needs or even know what he needs, is unable to communicate it to a parent. So the parent experiments. Dad tries winding, Gran tries swaddling, Mom tries a feed. Dr Delahooke says that research in infant care shows that we get it right less than 30% of the time! But it doesn’t matter because of something called Rupture and Repair.

When a need isn’t met, a child isn’t understood, a response doesn’t offer the safety and care it intended, it’s called a rupture. What the parent of an infant does in that moment is try something else, until she finds something that soothes, comforts and calms: Cue the repair.

The same thing is possible when I respond to my anxious teen or you try to calm a distraught 6 year old.

We choose our emotional tone and set out to witness the distress. You ask if your daughter would like a drink of water: she shouts an emphatic no. That didn’t work. I ask my teen if she might be reading something into a situation that isn’t there and her look shoots daggers. In fact, what we tried at first seemed to make it worse!

So we try something else. You bend down to the height of a 6 year old and with undivided attention say: I can see you are upset. I tell my teen, I’m putting the kettle on because I think we need tea as she tells me more about what is upsetting her. Our response shares our calm and care through connection. Cue the repair.

Mona’s wonderful book is full of examples like this for different ages.

The fascinating thing is that relationships are fostered in the repair, not compromised because we needed a repair in the first place!

BOTTOM LINE: We don’t have to be perfect to raise healthy kids. Mismatches will always occur, but there will also always be the opportunity to repair—and that’s where the growth comes from.

I know what you are thinking: All of this seems just too much like your job is to keep your unpredictable, busy, reactive little one calm and comfortable at all times. That is both impossible and surely coddling!

Remember, there is a difference between responding to a child who’s brain- body connection is vulnerable and out of control, and becoming responsible for always preventing discomfort. In fact with healthy growth we delight in opportunities for manageable stress and challenges because it is here that our child grows their own ability to self-regulate: in the Just right challenge. The focus of next week’s blog.

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