A young child is so frustrated and overwhelmed that she just hit her big sister.
As the adult responsible for managing this moment, can we comfort and protect one child while disciplining and guiding the other? And can we do this without shaming or hurting the child who did the hurting?
The answer to both questions is yes, but how?
- We do this with tools and support.
- We do this when we model the skills we want to teach.
- We do this via co-regulation.
Homeschooling mom of two, Angela, shows us what this looks like in the short video below when one hits the other. Here's what happened in Angela's own words:
My daughter Lila spent a long time trying to make a baking hat out of paper. She became frustrated with the results and abandoned it, deciding she was ready to start baking instead.
But she clearly wasn’t over her big feelings — pushing her sister who was washing hands first, and yelling at both of us.
It wasn’t really about washing hands. It was about her frustration and disappointment from before.
I gently but firmly reminded her that I understood that she was frustrated about the hat but that I could not let her hurt her sister’s body.
Giant meltdown. Lila began screaming and hanging on to my body while simultaneously pushing me away.
I’ve learned that when Lila is upset, she wants to be close but she doesn’t want to be held. So I moved away a bit and sat on a step-stool, suggested a calming strategy, and told her I would be available when she was ready.
She continued to cry for a couple of minutes longer, then bravely began to count — it is so brave to decide to change your own feelings right in the middle of some tough ones!
You can hear her voice gradually get calmer as she counted. Lila counted all the way to 30, then lifted her finger to “blow out a candle”:
I asked if she was ready for a hug, and she climbed into my lap to accept the connection. All of this is the result of our work with Generation Mindful’s Time-In Toolkit, which I couldn’t recommend more. - Angela (@AngelaMomtessori)
This is co-regulation.
- dismissing (going away or putting the child away/in time-out)
- threatening (yelling, hitting, shaming)
- or rescuing (moving in to solve the frustration instead of allowing her child her experience)
...Angela is teaching her child how to gain control over her body and to manage her emotions.
Regulation is a Skill
Regulation involves one person staying present for another through a challenging experience such that the stressed individual experiences greater self-awareness.
Much like math, science, and reading, self-regulation is a skill to be learned. For children to learn these skills, they must be taught.
Self-regulation is taught through co-regulation.
We Must Co-Regulate To Self-Regulate
Co-regulation takes two. You and your little one. On the same team.
As humans, we are not born with the tools to self-regulate. Notice a newborn’s cries as it seeks its mother for comfort. Or the toddler who is whining or throwing a tantrum in the middle of the store. These are signs that they need help to build the skills of regulation.
How is this done?
- Build a relationship with your child through connection. Get eye level (or below) and be with them in their state of emotion. Parenting is not something you do to your child but rather a relationship you build. Hear and validate your child’s emotions. A younger toddler will likely need help putting words to their experience. You can help by naming what you see and then offering calming strategies as needed.
- Provide a warm environment where all feelings and emotions are allowed and sacred. Structure the environment to make regulation playful and manageable. The use of a Calming Corner helps create a safe space for children to feel and regulate.
- Model the awareness and regulation you want to teach. Co-regulation involves seeing and being seen. Hold awareness of your own internal climate and demonstrate naming and taming your emotions. Our children learn most by what they see (even more than by what we say)!
As your child becomes more comfortable understanding the sensations in their body and labeling them, she will be better equipped to develop skills of independently choosing calming strategies … tools to maintain pleasant feelings and to work through unpleasant ones.
Co-regulation Doesn't Require Perfection
We, all of us, make mistakes.
Luckily, perfection is not a requirement for regulation.
When we let go of being perfect, we make it safe to make mistakes … both for ourselves and our child. (I'll take present over perfect all day long.)
So, if we as parents stumble from time to time (or even flat-out face plant), it is okay! Co-regulation stretches beyond teaching the skills of how to regulate --it’s also teaching skills for when we miss the mark on regulating.
Take Angela’s experience, for example. Say she had not been able to regulate herself amid Lila’s big emotions. Say she was not able to keep her cool for the sake of co-regulation … What would the story have looked like then?
Perhaps, if that were the case, she would have used that experience as another teaching moment to model making mistakes, making amends, and offering a do-over.
When we are unable to self-regulate amid our child’s own dysregulation, we can choose to open a dialogue. “I felt frustrated and I yelled. That wasn’t my highest self. I am sorry. Have you ever felt frustrated or mad? Next time I feel frustrated, I will work on taking some deep breaths. What calming strategies do you want to try when you feel frustrated? … Can we have a do-over?”
So the next time you hear whining or the sounds of anger, frustration, sadness, or overwhelm, pause and see that your child is not giving you a hard time but rather having a hard time. Lean in and give co-regulation a chance.
Pause. Breathe. Allow for the feelings. Hold to your boundaries. Connect before you correct.
With tools and support, we really can love our way through the hard moments.
Regulation is a skill, so let's teach it.