Co-Regulation is Not Just a Buzzword, and It Can Be Practiced by Everyone

Co-regulation may be the new parenting buzzword, but human beings have utilized co-regulation strategies since time immemorial. Ancestral knowledge teaches us that singing together in ceremony (which stimulates the vagal nerve), drumming (which stimulates both sides of the brain), and spending time in nature (which soothes our nervous systems) are all regulating practices. The strains of late-stage capitalism and the individualistic culture of the United States continue to pull us further and further away from the wisdom of co-regulation.  

Modern psychologists define co-regulation as “the supportive process between adults and youth that integrates three key types of support: 1) providing warm, responsive relationships, 2) creating supportive environments, and 3) coaching and modeling self-regulation skills.” There is no perfect formula for co-regulation, but an attuned relationship between a child and an adult is the goal. While it’s impossible to remain calm 100% of the time, we can work to remain in authentic connection with our children and students while we (and they) experience big emotions. 

Thanks to brain science, we now understand big behavior is the result of the young persons’ nervous system dysregulation, rather than a conscious choice to push our buttons. We can recognize tantrums as communication about an unmet need, and an opportunity to practice regulation skills together. Human beings are wired for connection, and it is infinitely more accessible to calm down together than telling a child to calm down when they don’t yet have the skills to do so. 

How Experts Define Co-Regulation

Mona Delahooke, Ph.D., child psychologist and author of “Brain-Body Parenting: How to Stop Managing Behavior and Start Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids,” told CNBC,  ″[Kids] haven’t gotten the circuitry of self-regulation built yet,” she says. “The ability to accept disappointment and unpredictability and talk yourself down, that’s a very long developmental process that most children don’t have until they are older.” 

As psychiatrist Dr. Bruce Perry teaches us, “in a calm state, students are most successful in learning, communicating, problem solving, and collaborating; calm teachers are likewise at their most effective.” Thanks to mirror neurons, “emotional contagion occurs when people “catch” the emotional state of those around them. People subconsciously mimic facial expressions, vocal tones, and postures of others, mirroring each other’s emotions.” Just as we subconsciously may become distressed when we see a loved one in distress, witnessing another human being regulate their emotions can help us regulate ourselves.  

However, it’s not always as easy as taking a few deep breaths to end a tantrum. It can also be really hard to remain attuned to a young person while they are yelling or hitting you. We’ve recently witnessed some parenting influencers offer incomplete definitions of co-regulation, stating that it requires adults to remain consistently calm and collected while attending to their child’s big emotions. We know it is not realistic for any human being to remain calm 24/7. We believe such black and white thinking creates even more shame for parents and educators, which leads to even more dysregulation.  

How Pop Culture Misrepresents Co-Regulation

Popular culture pushes that we are parenting the “wrong way” if we experience big emotions, which is extremely stress-inducing. It’s unrealistic to remain calm in such a stressful and unequal society, and experiencing a wide range of emotions is an essential part of the human experience. Perfectionism – and the shame that comes with it – is not our goal.  

We’ve noticed a misinterpretation of co-regulation in recent media, such as this New Yorker Magazine article that argues that co-regulation is only accessible to people with lots of money. This false claim takes away the regulating strategies that under-resourced communities adapted and utilized for centuries, and erases the work of countless grassroots organizations and individuals who are already equipping their communities with tools of resilience and resistance. Co-regulation isn’t just a buzz word or wellness trend exclusively available to wealthy elite who experience less stress than folks living in poverty; it is a connective approach that has been used for centuries, and it does not require lots of money or time to try out. 

How BELONG Partners Views Co-Regulation

We view co-regulation as a process for adults and young people to practice regulation together, and an opportunity to practice repair when regulation is not reached in an escalated moment. Modeling for young people how to apologize after losing our cool not only teaches them that it’s okay to make mistakes, but will ultimately strengthen the connection between the adult and the young person. We also recommend practicing co-regulation when the young person is relatively calm, building up their regulation muscles which allows for easier access to regulation skills when they are escalated. 

Being unauthentically calm during a tantrum isn’t our goal; rather, we believe in creating a home or classroom that is resilient to the inevitable ups and downs of the world. That doesn’t always mean being calm – it means being able to recognize that you are dysregulated, try a regulation strategy to return to calm, and repair together after rupture – to ride the waves of human emotion together. This strategy helps model to our young people that no one emotion is permanent, and that we can rely on one another as we experience big emotions.  

Practicing Co-Regulation Benefits Everyone in Our Communties

Speaking of relying on each other, you may recall our previous article about the loneliness epidemic, which is a public health crisis that continues to fuel depression and anxiety in our society. It is an isolating place to feel like you’re the only one that struggles with your child or student’s big emotions. Co-regulation also includes adult-to-adult relationships, because we all need support and community in these isolating times. The more we cultivate communities where we can learn from fellow parents or educators who are doing the work of increasing their resiliency windows, the more supportive and connected we will all be. 

Join us for our Reimagining Resilience series where we offer tools and strategies to build and practice your own co-regulation skills.