What is co-regulation? And how is it involved with child development? In part 1 of this blog post, I’m chatting with doctors, Jenna Elgin and Shauna Alvarez of Helping Families Thrive. They are both psychologists who aim to support families with evidence and empathy.
I decided to host them on my podcast and blog because at least once a quarter, especially with social media, there is a lot of misinformation about parenting going on. So, we hope to get to the truth about parenting and co-regulation.
>>Listen to another episode about Timeout with Helping Families Thrive
If you are like what is that, then you are in good company! I didn’t know either. This blog post is going to be a bit longer than usual, but I hope it helps you unpack the meaning of co-regulation. Later on, if you want to learn more, I’d encourage you to check out Jenna and Shauna’s course Parenting Essentials.
They are passionate about equipping you with fundamental knowledge about positive parenting that actually makes sense. So if you are interested in their course, use the link here and use the code “HFTLittleZ” to save 20%. You are going to love it.
Shauna & Jenna:
“Jenna and I are both research scientists turned into practicing psychologists and moms of three. We met in graduate school and have worked together in various research and clinical capacities.
We’re also really, really close friends. Throughout our clinical work together and our journeys, and as foster, adoptive, and bio moms, we started, particularly during COVID, to connect about all the misinformation out there and the gap between research and misinformation.
Our mission is to try to bridge that gap between what we know from our academic training and our clinical work as psychologists and what’s out there for the everyday parent. With that, what are the foundations of actual evidence-based parenting? Let’s create a course.”
“We really want to take the shame out of the conversation and inform with reliable data. We also want to manage differences with neurodivergence, cultures, and family preferences. So what are the pillars of a family course? That has been the aim of our work.
There is a misinformation minefield out there. Sometimes, people hear something that doesn’t look much like the original study or research, but yet they share that the research supports their idea and that becomes an issue.”
“So I was talking to my husband, Chad, and we both were asking what co-regulation is? After I looked it up, I realized it was about child emotional regulation.
The reason we want to talk about this is that we are seeing the phrase “co-regulation” being used a lot in social media and especially in the sleep space.
And sometimes what happens is those become buzzwords, we misuse appropriate evidence-based parenting practices. So for example, instead of sleep training, your child needs co-regulation.
Instead of a timeout, your child needs co-regulation instead of a consequence. So when is it appropriate to use co-regulation?”
Shauna & Jenna:
“It’s true that sometimes those buzzwords became a problem on social media and parents latch on to them. So what are some of the myths and trends about co-regulation?”
Shauna & Jenna:
“The first one that we hear a lot is that if you just respond sensitively and promptly to your child, your child will develop emotional regulation.
They believe it’s all about sensitivity and responsiveness and that will in and of itself lead to emotional regulation or self-regulation. While that’s certainly part of the puzzle, there are some other pieces to consider too. Another myth we see is responding promptly every time your child cries. Lastly, we see limiting consequences that involve a brief separation.
It’s taught that if you use a timeout, it will damage the attachment you have developed with that child. Another myth is that co-regulation means actively engaging with your child when they’re upset.
To simplify, the myth of co-regulation is I am beside my child, comforting, and responding to every behavior, no matter what.
If I do that, if my child feels safe enough, and if I am warm enough, then everything will be okay. What does the opposite of that suggest? If you don’t respond promptly or use consequences, you are not making your child feel safe.
Those are really harmful and inaccurate messages. I think one of the things that’s important to discuss before we even dive into the specifics of co-regulation is to look at our ultimate goal with self-regulation.
When we think about self-regulation, what do you mean? What do we actually mean by self-regulation? There’s a really helpful framework that is described in the research for what self-regulation is:
Self-regulation is the act of managing your thoughts and your emotions, and this develops over an extended period from the day you are born through young adulthood.
As you can imagine, even into adulthood, for some people, it serves the foundation for our lifelong functioning. So it is related to a lot of outcomes for people.”
“Strong self-regulation is a really good thing, but it’s influenced by a lot of different things— like innate characteristics of a person. It’s also impacted by environmental factors, like adverse and prolonged stress (traumatic experiences).
Caregivers, teachers, and adults all play an important role in the development of self-regulation. So if you have a neurodivergent kid, or if you have a kid who is highly sensitive and their feelings, instead of little storms, are more like inner tsunamis Everything is a 12, regardless of what kind of child you have, these skills can be taught and strengthened by shifting aspects of the environment, including how we respond.
Self-regulation is built upon this foundation of co-regulation. So the parent or caregiver childcare provider and how they interact with that child help determine what that self-regulation trajectory looks like over time.”
“Co-regulation is not one specific behavior. It’s a variety of parent behaviors in the indictment. It’s not just cozy corners and comforting; we need to think about every human having a self-regulation bucket essentially.”
“In one picture there is a child’s own emotional regulation skills. And then the other picture is the adult, parents, or caregiver’s regulation skills. To have optimal functioning in life, we all need to have our emotional regulation bucket or self-regulation bucket filled.
But it’s not that simple. There are a variety of factors like your child’s age, life experiences, and natural wiring differences. Your child may have experienced poverty or neglect.
In those cases, you might need more self-regulation from the parent to support the child and fill their bucket. If you have a child who is filling up their own bucket with their natural tendencies, it might require less from their parent or caretaker. As parents, we need to know where to fill the gap.”
“As an example, my near seven-year-old has had a traumatic year. Because of the pandemic, she left her kindergarten year abruptly. Later we moved and started a brand new school with masking.
She’s never had a normal school year and I kept wondering why she couldn’t handle a full day at school. The pandemic and its results caused a lot of chaos because her emotional wiring is steadiness. She values consistency, but life happens and things change.”
“I could tell that she needed me to pour more into her bucket, but it’s not always super clear what your child needs. But, the goal of self-regulation is there.
So, we may start offering verbal support to our child initially when they are upset, but they may not necessarily respond at first, but over time, they develop the tools.
I think there’s been so much anxiety caused by this fear of the pressure—if I don’t respond, I’m not the perfect Mary Poppins. Then, immediately my child’s going to feel isolated, alone, unsafe, and damaged.
That has actually hindered our ability to use our most powerful tool in my opinion—which is to pause before we respond because in pausing, we can take the time to reflect and be attuned with our kids about what they need now.”
Shauna & Jenna:
“How do I help my kid co-regulate— do I make a cozy corner? I sound like I’m bashing cozy corners. I love cozy corners, but I just don’t believe that is the only way to be a successfully co-parenting or co-regulating parent. If we get away from the myths and go to the nuanced truth, the body of research on co-regulation has three pillars.”
“The three pillars are first, the warm, responsive relationship. This is the foundation of all evidence-based parenting programs.
For example, how do we make these little deposits into kids’ emotional piggy banks? Responding to bids of attention from your child and showing warmth is consistent for co-regulation from the research.
That’s pretty basic and not controversial. It’s providing that kind of warm attentiveness during the day, not when they are just upset. It’s ideal to show it during play or other calmer times.
The second pillar identified is structuring the environment. And this reminded me of your daughter, because you said for her, this pillar seems particularly important, right?
So in our clinical work and in our eCourse, we talk about being clear and communicating predictable routines. And when things get unpredictable, create new structured concrete routines where kids know what to rely on. When they diverge from the structure, there are consequences, positive or negative.
The best practice is that part of structuring the environment includes predictable routines, clear expectations, and logical consequences for misbehavior, right?
And this idea that consequences including time out, whatever you want to call it, a moment of separation to calm down is completely appropriate as part of developing co-regulation. The idea that you have to be next to your child all the time, that it’s all about positive Pollyanna is not, is not fair—it’s not based in science.
The third pillar is to teach and coach self-regulation through modeling. Where we are coaching and practicing scripts, you know, we are sitting down and saying, “when you get upset, you can do this. Or let’s take a deep breath together.” It’s best to do not when the child is upset but out of their moments.
So now that you know what co-regulation is and isn’t and the three pillars that provide the scaffolding for self-regulation, check out part 2 of this post here.
If you are loving this conversation and are looking for a great course, check out Helping Families Thrive’s Parenting Essentials course. You can save 20% by using code: HFTlittlez.
You are absolutely going to want to add this to your parenting tool belt and doctors, Jenna and Shawna are absolutely amazing.
Sweet dreams. See you next time.
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