The Myth of Self-Regulation

emotional intelligence  positive parenting 

By Guest Author

The Myth of Self-Regulation

By Rebecca Eanes

We live in a society that highly values independence and self-reliance. It is almost as if we have assigned some moral good to not needing others. This is extremely unfortunate for our mental and emotional health because human connections are built into our nervous systems as a requirement for a full life. We are biologically hard-wired to need others, to be in relationship with and attached to people. Developmental psychologist and originator of the attachment theory, John Bowlby, speaks of needing a safe haven “from the cradle to the grave.” In other words, we are born with a need for connection to others and we never outgrow it.  

According to family therapist and mentor Bonnie Badenoch who is well-versed in interpersonal neurobiology, we highly value logic, numbers, science, math, analytic thought, and attention to detail (functions of the left hemisphere) while devaluing the right hemisphere functions of connection, creativity, imagination, intuition, and holistic thought. She says this is a great tragedy because this left-hemisphere focus has given us a sense of not belonging to each other. There is no sense of we or of connection to others because those reside in the right hemisphere circuitry. We idealize individual achievement, grit, perseverance, and making it on one’s own, and so we have largely forgotten the value of togetherness and relationship.

The Myth Of Self-Regulation

Naturally, what has arisen from this societal mindset is the idea that even babies and young children “should” be able to do much for themselves, and so there has been a focus on getting babies and toddlers to “self-regulate” or “self-soothe,” which is seen as an ultimate goal in parenting. According to this mindset, the quicker we can get them to calm themselves down, put themselves to sleep, sidestep a tantrum, and play alone, the better parent we obviously are. The trouble, of course, is that it’s completely developmentally inappropriate. But let’s back up for just a moment and define self-regulation. It’s really a complex idea that includes several different and individual functions coming together, but for brevity’s sake, let’s define it as the ability to consciously control one’s own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. 

It is true that self-regulation is important. It helps children to be more successful in school, make friends, manage stress, cope with big emotions, and so forth. But how we get there matters. For example, some parents believe that allowing a child to cry themselves to sleep will teach them to self-regulate, and they feel their efforts have been rewarded when the child finally goes to sleep. However, as Dr. Laura Markham explains in Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids, “It’s well-documented that sustained, uncomforted infant crying causes increased heart rate and blood pressure, reduced oxygen levels, and skyrocketing stress hormones. Babies who are left to cry may eventually cry themselves to sleep, but that’s exhaustion, not soothing. Babies learn what to expect, so they’ll stop pleading … Babies in orphanages don’t perpetually cry, but we wouldn’t consider their adaptation healthy.” Therefore, what a parent may consider to be self-regulation is really just a stress response. That’s because a baby isn’t developmentally capable of regulating herself.

Research indicates that a qualitative shift in self-regulation takes place between the ages of three and seven, and even then, warm relationships are needed. Badenoch explains that when we are born, we do not have any regulatory circuitry at all. The components are there, but they only come together and become functional through relationships. We must first have the foundation of being soothed by someone because, when we eventually do self-regulate, we are drawing on the comfort that we feel or have felt with loved ones. This is why true self-regulation is a myth. It is never about self. We are always drawing on internal representations of what we have previously experienced in relationships. All of our connected, loving relationships leave a warm comfort inside of us that we draw upon when needed, even if we are doing so at an unconscious level. Therefore, before a child can achieve self-regulation, he must have experienced co-regulation.

Co-Regulation Precedes Self-Regulation

Co-regulation is best described as an interactive process of regulatory support that can occur within the context of caring relationships. This begins in infancy when we attune to our babies, soothe them when they cry, and attend to their needs throughout the day. When babies have a caregiver who will co-regulate with them during moments of stress, they begin to internalize strategies for self-regulation in their minds. All it takes is for us to be present and attuned to our children during their time of need. Even if we cannot quite figure out what is wrong, the fact that we are there is very healing. 

Co-regulation continues all the way up to and through adulthood as it is a natural part of a healthy and connected relationship, and we do this by empathizing, holding space for, and comforting our children as well as talking with them about their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. This is why time-in is such a valuable positive discipline tool. 

Co-Regulation And Time-Ins 

Time-ins help children calm down and process their emotions in the safe and loving presence of a caregiver, and so during time-in, we are co-regulating with them as well as teaching them important skills for future self-regulation. We know that when children feel calm and connected, they are free to learn and problem-solve. And when we as parents and educators use time-ins with our children, we help them develop the ability to self-regulate by drawing off their experiences with the co-regulation that happened during time-in. 

The brain forms millions of neural connections in the first few years of life, and the period of early childhood is crucial for developing self-regulatory skills. Therefore, it’s critically important that we attune to and co-regulate with our babies and young children and not try to force developmentally inappropriate self-reliance. We don’t have to do it perfectly, and if we miss an opportunity, it is possible to repair. The key takeaway is that connection with our child is the foundation for self-regulation. 

Fortunately, advances in relational neurobiology are beginning to turn things around. We are finally beginning to understand once again the value of we, and that gives us great hope for future generations. The more we value relationships, the healthier our society will become. 

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