April 12, 2024

Co-regulation: Helping kids and teens navigate big emotions

When preschoolers are melting down or teens are slamming doors, parents face two difficult tasks: keeping themselves calm and supporting their children’s ability to self-soothe while developing skills to meet future challenges.

These skills are at the heart of co-regulation, a parenting tool that requires patience and practice. But what exactly does it mean, and how does it help support children and teens struggling with big emotions?

What is co-regulation?

“Co-regulation is a supportive, interactive, and dynamic process,” says Lauren Marchette, a child, adolescent, and family psychologist and lecturer in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

Through warm and responsive interactions, caregivers help young people learn better ways to regulate their emotions during life’s inevitable setbacks and challenges. “At its core, co-regulation is connecting with a child in distress and being able to evaluate what that child needs at that moment to help calm themselves.”

But before a parent or trusted adult can help a child, they must understand—and possibly expand—their own emotional skills and limitations. Emotions are often contagious, whether someone is upset or sharing a sense of calm.

“The tricky thing about co-regulation is that adults need to recognize how they are feeling and be able to regulate their own emotions in difficult moments so they can help children acquire the same skills,” says Marchette. “But this will be so important for children to develop healthy relationships over time, and will influence how people do at school, at work and in life in general.”

How can building emotional skills help children and teens?

As children get older, they learn different skills: building a block tower, playing a sport or solving a math equation. They also learn emotional skills: for example, how to recognize and deal with feelings of anger or fear.

Such emotional skills are known as self-regulation and are truly the foundation of well-being in life, says Marchette. By consistently applying co-regulation, parents and other trusted adults promote self-regulation skills in children.

The list of self-regulation skills is extensive

  • emotional awareness and literacy, including the ability to identify emotions
  • emotional regulation skills, such as self-soothing
  • perspective taking, or the ability to “walk in someone else’s shoes”
  • social skills such as taking turns and practicing patience
  • paying attention and staying focused when necessary
  • Troubleshooting
  • flexible thinking
  • time management skills
  • Setting goals.

What are the potential benefits of co-regulation?

Co-regulation ensures that children can ultimately learn this

  • deal with stress
  • resisting instant gratification
  • avoid hasty, ill-informed decisions
  • make plans and stick to them
  • Resolving problems
  • adapt to challenges
  • taking healthy risks.

Some research suggests that having better self-regulation skills is linked to more positive outcomes in life, such as higher income and less substance use and violence.

Who could particularly benefit from co-regulation?

Everyone wins when children are better able to deal with frustrations and better control their responses to their thoughts and feelings. Parents, teachers, coaches, guidance counselors, mentors, and other adults who interact closely with children also benefit.

As for the children themselves, it’s hard to think of anyone whose lives won’t be improved by adults who have invested themselves in practicing co-regulation, Marchette says.

But practicing co-regulation skills with certain children and adolescents—including those whose families are experiencing economic hardship, substance abuse, divorce, or other distressing situations—can be especially important.

Are there indications that co-regulation works?

“Although co-regulation is built on a solid theoretical framework, not many studies have delved into its effectiveness – at least across all age groups,” says Marchette. “Research that does focus mainly on babies and toddlers.”

“Much less is known about how co-regulation interventions work for older youth,” she says. “The research is trying to catch up on what we know from years of clinical experience.”

How can a parent coach a child through co-regulation?

Co-regulation does not stand alone as a skill. It relies on fostering a warm, responsive relationship with children, providing structure and setting boundaries. “Children benefit from consistent, predictable routines with clear expectations and consequences,” says Marchette.

When a child begins to experience big emotions, a co-regulation response will look different depending on the child and the circumstances. But the steps to take are similar.

“First, the parent needs to pause and self-regulate their own emotions, for example by taking deep breaths,” Marchette explains. “The next steps are to validate the child’s feelings, observe the child’s response, and then decide how to respond next, including verbally and nonverbally, such as with a touch.”

Marchette gives an example from her own practice: 12-year-old “Eric” is in his bedroom working on a writing assignment when his mother suddenly hears loud noises. She walks to his door and sees him throw a stapler, a notebook, and a container of pens off his desk. “What’s wrong with me?” he shouts. “I’m bad at writing and I hate school!” Then Eric puts his head on his desk.

The sixth-grader’s mother knows he needs help to calm down, so she pauses and takes a deep breath. Then she walks over to him and whispers his name, placing her hand on his shoulder. After another silence, Eric gradually sits up in his chair. “I see how frustrated you are with this assignment,” she tells him, validating his feelings. “It must be quite a challenge.”

Eric’s mom knows he needs a break after he mumbles, “I can’t do it.” She suggests getting a glass of ice-cold water, and Eric glumly follows her into the kitchen. After the break, they can reevaluate whether Eric is ready to return to his homework or needs further coping strategies – such as a walk outside or a round of jumping jacks – to get his frustration out.

What tools can help parents put co-regulation into practice?

The Administration for Children and Families offers a free video series Co-regulation in Action. And some therapists – especially those who specialize in behavioral parent training or cognitive behavioral therapy – can help parents who feel their skills need a boost.

It is worth noting that it can be difficult to have sufficient resources – emotional, financial and other support – to put co-regulation into practice consistently. Those who want to try it should give themselves some grace while they learn the process. “Even parents who think their own self-regulation skills are not where they want them to be need to realize that this is a muscle they can strengthen,” says Marchette. “It’s important to have that growth mindset.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *