What is co-regulation and how do we help our child manage their big emotions? In part 2 of this blog series, we are going to be discussing co-regulation with with doctors, Jenna Elgin and Shauna Alvarez of Helping Families Thrive. They are both psychologists who aim to support families with evidence and empathy. Check out part 1 of this post here.
Shauna & Jenna:
“When your child is screaming or crying and you come over and remind them that you are present and here to help, that is going to help them soothe.
You are attuning to your child and filling their bucket that works for a successful co-regulation moment. Another parent might come over and soothe a child, but the child gets angry and starts screaming louder. Soon this volume gets bigger and your child may begin hitting you.
Some providers are recommending you stay with your child even while they are hitting you. That makes us feel nervous, as professionals, because it is not in line with the research and is unsafe.
After a two to three-minute break, it might be safe to approach that child again, and as a result, they feel emotionally connected. But, what about staying with the child as they continue to punch and hit you?
We began seeing comments online that some individuals were recommending a ‘new’ paradigm to stay with your child, hold down their arms, and remind them that you are near. Well, it’s safe to say, this isn’t new. In the 1940s, there was a term called ‘refrigerator mother’. It described a type of mothering where the mom was so uncaring and cold that their child would retreat emotionally and they erroneously believed, caused autism. So in response, parents feared that leaving a child would put them at risk and it led to ‘holding therapy’ during their violent fits, even with escalating punching, yelling, and more. We are seen as cold mothers if we step away from a child in this situation.
We also see the concept of parents wanting to be gentle and co-regulate. A lot of this is tied to attachment (listen to an episode about secure attachment here). What they seem to think is healthy attachment is staying near your child through a variety of behaviors.
And so it really does come down to this, the attachment conversation. Sensitivity towards your child is an important part of the conversation, but what we don’t mean is that you cannot take a brief break from your child.
Using sleep training or sleep coaching is not what is going to make or break attachment. It’s so much bigger than that!”
“In our preschool program, I’ve had so many little kids who have been sleeping with mom and dad, and now are not sleeping with mom and dad, but mom is right there sitting beside them in their bed. I’ve had so many kids say, “Would you just leave? If you’re not going to lay in the bed, would you just go?”
The mom later texts me and asks if they can leave! I always encourage them, YES! You can leave, just like I mention in the course.
I think it is definitely a twisted world where mothers are tricked to believe that the relationship with their child all depends on their constant proximity.”
Shauna & Jenna:
“So one of the beliefs that comes up a lot in the attachment world is the faster I respond to crying the better, right? This is kind of a core belief behind attachment parenting.
Mary Ainsworth is a well-known attachment researcher, and she did a study on secure attachment. She followed some 25 families for many years. The main finding was that responsiveness and infant crying. The premise is the faster you respond, the less crying as your child approaches their first birthday.
But the research wasn’t perfect. Later another Dutch researcher who is an expert in attachment replicated Ainsworth’s study. His goal was to take the criticisms of the analysis and replicate it with a bigger sample and accurate stats. He was expecting to get similar findings.
What he actually found was the opposite—babies actually decreased in crying over time when the mothers gradually made their babies wait. When the mother gives them some space, the infants began to self-soothe and inevitably, cry less. Sadly, this research got very little traction versus the earlier study.
Just this year, he and some other coauthors wrote this paper and I’m hoping it will get some eyes on it. His belief is that our responses are actually important here and our kids can learn a lot if we give them some space and listen to their cues. There are a lot of nuances.
When we give our children some space to self-regulate and soothe, we’ve giving them an opportunity to delay gratification better don’t the road. If we never allow our kids to experience any distress, then they don’t learn self-regulation at all.”
Shauna & Jenna:
“I see now more than ever are families who feel this pressure to co-regulate with their child in this prescriptive way who then end up staying really close to the fire.
Like maybe they have a child whose wiring makes their brains catch fire when they are upset. And because the family feels like, okay, the only way I can be a good parent is to stay right by these flames. I’m not afraid to get burned and bring it on.
And then everything blows up in flames, right? What do they end up doing? They get hurt. They accidentally hurt their children because they’re holding their arms down and which I’m really struggling with how that is viewed as more respectful than taking a step back.
Right? So I see parents doing that, which is not in line with their values and leads to harsher parenting practices and more inconsistent parenting practices. Because what do I do? I start off super gentle, like, okay, I’m here. I love you, baby. I’m here. I love you, but you need to stop hitting me. I’m trying so hard.
Now this kid is in a home environment that is really emotionally volatile with inconsistent unpredictable responses, because I wanted so damn hard to have this Instagram version of what co-regulation and good parenting looks like.
With anxiety, is it never okay to push your child to do something that they’re afraid of? They’ll do it when they’re ready if you’re just loving and supportive enough. But in reality, we see patients in our clinic all the time with children who won’t sleep in their own bed. They think they aren’t empathetic or good enough. It’s heartbreaking.
It doesn’t have to be one size fits all. Every family is different and every child has different wiring and needs. You do not have to follow the exact same script.
Yes, have a playbook and look at the evidence-based research, but get rid of some of the noise if it isn’t working for your family.”
“To make sure we’ve covered everything, is there anything else that we need to dialogue about that comes to co-regulation?”
Shauna & Jenna:
“I wanted to just point out a few of the specific strategies. One is teaching a skill and prompting it over time. We had one child who would whine using a whiney voice. We kept prompting her to use her regular voice, and over time, we used a nonverbal signal when she would whine, that she would need to use her regular voice. Eventually, her whiney voice faded out with time.
Using co-regulation skills is not time-consuming in that it takes 8 hours of training, but it doesn’t require consistency.
I guarantee every listener here is doing some form of co-regulation already. We may not always get it right every time, but with a good direction, you will see good results.”
Shauna & Jenna’s course can help you set the stage for what you need for co-regulation and here at Little Z’s, we’d encourage you to check it out! Don’t forget that you can save 20% by using code HFTLittleZ at checkout.
You are absolutely going to want to add this to your parenting tool belt and doctors, Jenna and Shawna are absolutely amazing. And so, so good at what they do.
Sweet dreams. See you next time.
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