As a society, we ask our babies to self-soothe and our toddlers to self-regulate. This is a tragedy.
Under pressure to perform, we expect our children to perform, too. This is what society tells us about what it means to be a “good” parent and have “good” children. Train them to sleep. Train them to play alone. Train them to not need you when things feel hard.
But would we punish a baby for not knowing how to crawl or send our children to their rooms for not knowing their ABCs and 123s? It seems sort of ridiculous when we put it that way.
The Myth Of Self-Regulation
We have shifted, operating more from our brain’s left hemisphere, and less from our right. Logic is valued over emotion and self-reliance is esteemed over connection. So it makes sense that we value self-regulation over co-regulation.
But our children don’t come into this world knowing how to self-regulate. The components are there but the circuitry only comes together and becomes functional through warm, attaching relationships. And not just during pleasant emotional states, but (and especially) during their dysregulation.
This means leaning in rather than pulling away during their meltdowns, power struggles, and overwhelm. This means understanding and empathizing with our children rather than punishing their development. And this requires us to really see our children and reflect them.
For example, when our baby cries, we soothe her. We may attempt to nurse, check her diaper or sway rhythmically side-to-side.
When our toddler bursts into tears because sharing and waiting is hard, we drop to our knees to validate him, and maybe model some deep breaths.
When our kid had a tough day at school, we cuddle her close and listen with an open heart.
It may seem like not much is happening when we respond in this way yet each time we attune to our child’s physical and emotional needs and regulate their system with our own, aka co-regulate, they strengthen the pathways for future self-regulation.
Even when we don’t understand where our children are coming from, and even if we must also redirect their behavior, the fact that we are making an effort to see and hear our child is soothing to their limbic system. They internalize: I am safe. I am valuable. I have support in my time of need. And this becomes their definition for subsequent regulation.
As our children develop a comfortable internalization of these experiences, they unconsciously carry them inside. And during their next moment of deep, colorful emotion, they access them, drawing on their past experiences of comfort with you. In this way, we never actually regulate alone. In this way, it’s always about co-regulation.
4 Misconceptions of Self-Regulation
While it is often a hot topic and a buzzword, it turns out there are many misconceptions about self-regulation. Here are four.
1. We need to train our babies to sleep through the night.
As a sleep-deprived mom, I often felt the pressure from others to sleep train my sons and let them cry it out. But here’s what our babies need us to know.
When a baby is in utero, he borrows the circadian rhythm of his mother as melatonin passes to him through the placenta. Yet after birth, because he lacks his own hormonal regulators of sleep, he must develop his own body clock, and that takes time. In addition, our babies are biologically wired to wake more often than an adult. This is a protective mechanism from our hunter and gatherer days to help the baby stay alert in case a predator comes and threatens survival. We still possess the same innate responses even though nature has evolved.
Lastly, babies and toddlers have an underdeveloped neocortex in comparison to an adult’s brain, which means they lack the skills of self-regulation. There is a difference between a baby falling asleep from emotional exhaustion and regulating on her own. As mentioned above, teaching our babies to self-soothe doesn’t come from leaving her alone, muting her cries, and leaving her to “figure it out” but in being responsive to her needs so that, when the time is right as her brain connectivity matures, it hardwires pathways for true self-regulation.
2. Self-regulation is only for unpleasant emotions.
When our children become upset, we often, with good intentions, scuffle them along to calm, as if calm is the thing to be. We think we have to upregulate pleasant emotions and down-regulate unpleasant emotions. However regulation has nothing to do with achieving a certain state. Being regulated simply means your emotions and responses match the situation.
If your child’s fish dies and they feel sad, they may cry and also be regulated.
If your child feels excited about their new puppy, they can feel excited and regulated.
If your child is told no about something they wanted, they can feel angry and regulated.
It all depends on how they take control of their emotions in that moment, which requires self-awareness. This self-awareness allows them to notice, name, and effectively express their internal sensations.
3. Self-regulation is only about emotions.
Our emotions influence our behaviors. This is especially true in our children who primarily function from their emotional hub. So it makes sense that as they begin to manage emotions, their behaviors will shift. But emotional regulation isn’t the only player in the game. In learning to be self-aware and notice emotional sensations, they also develop behavioral and cognitive regulation. Children begin to connect the dots so that they can change their feelings with their thoughts and that can control their impulses.
4. Self-regulation has to be done when children are young.
Self-regulation takes more than two decades to develop. Children are learning and refining these skills well into their mid-twenties. This circuitry is continuously evolving. Think of it as a lifelong journey, not a specific milestone to achieve and cross off the list.
Brain plasticity is lasting longer than we originally thought, which means for children who start later in the game, it is not too late to rewire their brain and create new circuits. The brain is adaptable and changeable so, while they may have to unlearn a few things, new learning can also occur.
Additionally, if we did not grow up having consistent, warm attachments, then we may not have downloaded healthy internal representations of how to regulate, making our jobs as parents a bit harder. It can feel challenging to model self-regulation for our children. Our nervous system may even register it as a threat.
What research says, however, is that we can build these skills by inviting warm relationships to internalize in adulthood. Also, as we practice these skills with our children via Time-In rituals, we strengthen our brain matter, too.