Co-Regulation Supports Parents and Their Children

Have you ever been in a long line at the grocery store with your toddler on the brink of a tantrum? You are not alone. Our society teaches parents that children are meant to obey adults, which leaves parents feeling frustrated when their children are unable to obey due to big emotions. As we learn more about brain science, the advice offered to parents is shifting. We now know that helping parents to first learn how to regulate their own emotions rather than suppressing them, helps our children learn to self-regulate. This is called co-regulation – check out the tips below for simple ways to practice.

Learn How to Identify Your Own Emotions

The first step in co-regulation is to build our own emotional awareness skills as adults, which is something many of us have never been taught. Identifying your emotions not only helps calm your own nervous system, but through modeling, it also helps our children self-regulate. As psychologist Dr. Dan Siegel says, when it comes to big emotions, “name it to tame it.” By noticing and labeling our emotions, we signal the brain to send soothing neurotransmitters to our amygdala and the brain’s emotional centers, calming our bodies and minds. Many adults were never taught how to self-regulate – check out this list of self-regulation ideas for more information.

Pediatrician Alison Escalante advocates for the “Sigh, see, start” as an easy method for checking in with yourself. It is a method for observing your child’s emotional state, and responding to your child with curiosity and care. Sighing is an evidence-based way to calm your brain and body because it stimulates your vagus nerve, which is part of your parasympathetic nervous system. Experts recommend narrating the “sigh, see, start” process to your children, which models for them how to calm down and problem-solve. Escalante shares, “kids don’t need perfect parents; they need to be raised by real humans who model how to deal with mistakes.”

Use Mirror Neurons to Your Advantage

Mirror neurons are brain cells that activate when we witness another human doing or feeling something. They are the reason why a baby sticks its tongue out if their caregiver sticks their tongue out, or why we might tear up when we witness someone we care about crying. Mirror neurons are related with “empathic, social and imitations behavior. They are a fundamental tool for learning.” We are evolutionarily wired for connection with other humans, which is why mirror neurons are such a powerful tool for teaching and learning how to regulate our brains and bodies.

Children are very perceptive to tones of voice, body language, and facial expressions. By regulating ourselves first as parents, we are priming our brains to be able to show empathy and connect with our children to work through big emotions. At BELONG Partners, we teach a tool called “connect before correct.” We know from brain science that even a simple empathy statement such as, “it seems like you’re really frustrated,” before setting boundaries with kids is much more effective than admonishing their behavior. Aliza Pressman, a developmental psychologist, offers these examples: “Dessert is really good, and I understand why you want it, but we won’t be getting it tonight” or “I know waking up for school is hard and you’re tired, but you need to get out of bed.” 

Give these co-regulation tools a try, and check out our previous blog post about co-regulation for more ideas.