The holidays are over and you’re trying to get your family back into a routine, but your child has been struggling these last few weeks. They’re having tantrums, not sleeping well, and seem to not listen to what you’re saying/asking. Sound familiar? This can be common, especially after the holidays when routines get disrupted, children are surrounded by more people than usual, and they’re being presented with new and different scenarios than normal (e.g., think new foods and/or people/environments).
Stress responses such as emotional outbursts, increased irritability, trouble sleeping, or withdrawal from others can be natural and most children don’t yet have the coping skills to navigate through these emotions on their own. This is where you, the caregiver/parent come in to help them! In therapy, we often call this “co-regulation” which is the interactive process by which caring adults provide support and promote self-regulation through coaching, modeling, and feedback. In other words, it’s not about temporarily calming a child down, but the process through which a child develops the ability to self-regulate in the long-term from the support their parent/caregiver provides them.
This can be difficult when your child is having a meltdown and all you want to say is, “CALM DOWN!” However, your child relies on you to be the calm and safe anchor for their dysregulated system and when they are flooded with big emotions. Therefore, co-regulation starts with regulating your own feelings then approaching your child in a calm and understanding manner.
Co-regulation techniques to try with your child when they’re struggling with big emotions or are experiencing a meltdown:
Try to stay calm and label feelings – you might first need to take a breath and calm yourself down. Once you have calmed, address your child slowly and at their level using a calm voice. By doing this you’re actually helping your child’s brain label the sensations and emotions they are feeling, which over time, makes it easier for your child’s brain to identify what is happening and leads to self-regulation quicker.
Breathe together – slow breathing is proven to be effective in reducing stress and anger. Start practicing a few slow, deep breaths and ask your child to sit beside you so they can feel the rhythm of your breath and join you. Try counting to 10 while inhaling then count down from 10 while exhaling.
Calm their senses – try to make the environment calmer by diming the lights or turning off any background noise (e.g., TV or music). Allow your child to get comfortable either by grabbing a favorite stuffed animal or blanket. You can also create a “calming corner” in your house where the child can go when they are having big emotions. This can look like a play tent filled with pillows and blankets or even the corner of the living room with a few pillows they can sit on when overwhelmed. Offering a “safe space” for your child while they are in this heightened state, will help them to feel safe and begin to regulate their nervous system.
Connect through touch – physical touch is a powerful way to connect with your child. Always ask them first if you can rub their back, feet, or hands. By giving input to their body with touch, this can help them relax and slow down their breathing.
Co-regulation is essential to building self-regulation which is pivotal for a child’s mental health, healthy relationships, and overall well-being. By modeling how to remain calm in a situation/event, your child will learn to become more comfortable understanding the sensations in their body, labeling them, then become better equipped to develop skills to choose calming strategies.