Emotional Co-Regulation

Co-regulation is something you can do to help your child.

Children who are struggling to regulate their emotions often are easily frustrated, overreact, tantrum, hit, yell, throw things and generally feel out of control.  As parents, we want nothing more than to help them but it can feel overwhelming.    

Emotional regulation is simply the ability to regulate emotions.  It is the skill that allows us to manage uncomfortable feelings (anger, sadness, frustration, etc.) in a socially acceptable way.  Emotional regulation is learned over time.  It is why (most) adults do not have temper tantrums in the grocery store when they are told they can’t have that candy bar.  

Co-regulation is when someone regulates their emotions to match yours or you regulate your emotions to match theirs.  It happens within a relationship.  

The human brain is equipped with mirror neurons which assist with co-regulation. These neurons allow you to imitate another person’s actions.  For example, when children are learning to tie their shoes, their mirror neurons are imitating someone else’s movements.  Mirror neurons also imitate or at least understand others feelings.  When you see someone crying, you typically automatically feel sad for them.  This is your mirror neurons at work.

The really amazing thing about mirror neurons is that you can use your mirror neurons to help your child when they are struggling to regulate their own emotions.  If you stay calm in situations which are causing your child distress (ie frustration, anxiety, fear, anger, etc) and maintain a supportive presence, your child will essentially “catch” your calm.  

How do you do it?  How do you “give” your calm to your child?

First, you need to be aware of your own feelings.  Are you calm?  Are you feeling anxious?  If you are feeling anxious, is it your own anxiety you are feeling?  Or are you mirror neurons imitating someone else’s anxious feeling?  You need to be calm before you can help someone else regulate.  If you need to, take a break, step back and calm yourself first.  Regulating your own emotions allows you to help someone else regulate.  Just like at the beginning of every flight where they tell you to put your own oxygen mask on first.  

The next step is attunement.  Attunement is being aware of your child’s emotions and needs.  What are they feeling right now?  Are they scared, worried, angry, frustrated?  What do they need right now?  Do they need your encouragement?  Prompts to use coping skills?  Support?  

Next, give feelings names.  Dan Siegel says “if you name it, you can tame it.”  The simple process of identifying what your child is feeling helps them to regulate.  

If you feel your child is struggling with emotional regulation beyond what you can support, it may be time to seek additional help and support.  You can contact us at Champaign Counseling to schedule an appointment.