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How Co-regulation with Parents Develops into Self-Regulation in Children

| Why is co-regulation important | Before co-regulation begins | How to co-regulate |

What is co-regulation

Coregulation is an interpersonal process in which participants continuously adjust their interactions in a coordinated pattern to co-create and maintain a positive emotional state ​1​

During emotion co-regulation, participants adapt their actions to regulate one another in a cooperative way, i.e. they co-regulate​2​. This mutual regulation involves a process of matching, mismatching, rupturing, and repairing connections​3​.

Children learn to self-regulate by first co-regulating with their parents​4​.

mother hugs crying boy using co regulation strategies

Why is co-regulation important

A child’s social-emotional development depends on their ability to regulate their emotions. 

A child’s ability to regulate their emotions is essential for healthy child development and successful functioning in a wide range of areas, from physical and mental health to academic performance, and socioeconomic success. Various adverse outcomes in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood are associated with difficulties in emotional self-regulation. 

The ability of infants to regulate themselves is limited at the beginning of life. When babies are upset, they depend heavily on their primary caregivers to cope and restore their emotional balance.

Children learn how to communicate and manage their feelings based on the caregiver’s responses to their expressions of negative emotion​5​.

Emotional regulation begins with co-regulation with the primary caregiver.

Parents can help children develop self-regulation by using co-regulation.

Caregiver co-regulation allows caring parents to facilitate children’s emotional regulation by providing them with external support. These experiences serve as scaffolds for children to develop their own ability to deal with emotional distress.

For parents, coregulation is like teaching their children how to ride a bike without training wheels. 

In the beginning, the child simply sits there while the parents do all the work holding up the bike and pushing it forward. But soon, the child gets used to balancing on the bike. They start pedaling and balancing on their own. At some point, you can let go.

Coregulation is crucial to the childhood development of emotion regulation.

In the absence of parents or training wheels, a child learning to bike is likely to fall and get hurt a lot. When it becomes too much, they may give up.

Without coregulation, children may become dysregulated (e.g. outbursts, aggression) or adopt maladaptive coping strategies (e.g. emotion suppression that leads to internalizing issues such as depression). 

Also See: Still Face Experiment – Why Parenting Matters for Child Development

mother hugs and kisses boy to co regulate

Before the emotional co-regulation process begins

To apply effective and consistent co-regulation techniques, take note of the followings.

First, self-regulate

Parents must be able to self-regulate before they can co-regulate. Caregivers’ own self-regulation serves as a model of how to control their emotions for the child.

It can be challenging to deal with a screaming, irrational child during acute distress episodes, especially if the situation has already triggered big feelings in you.

Try to calm yourself by taking deep breaths, clearing your mind, and using positive self-talk.

Your past experience, thoughts, and beliefs about emotions will affect how well you manage your emotions. Seek professional help if it becomes too difficult for you. Mental health professionals can assist you in identifying and resolving unresolved issues that could be preventing you from being a calm, caring parent.

Do not punish

We cannot control what we feel.

Punishing negative emotions is especially harmful as it can aggravate negative emotions in an already difficult situation. In addition to communicating non-acceptance, punishment prevents children from receiving co-regulation from a caring, supportive caregiver​6​.

Do not invalidate emotions

Do not ignore, dismiss, or reject negative emotions. A child’s feelings of invalidation are associated with social-emotional difficulties and psychological distress​7​.

Responsive parenting

Promote self-regulation development using warm and responsive interactions that foster a secure attachment in children​8​

Responsive parents recognize and respond to children’s cues that signal their needs. Through caring interactions, they support and model regulation to facilitate children’s ability to understand, express, and modulate emotions.

Children who are securely attached internalize regulation strategies within their attachment relationships and apply them outside of their attachment relationships​9​.

dad plays with baby on bed co regulation definition

How to co-regulate

Throughout development, co-regulated experiences change as a child’s capacity for self-regulation grows, but it remains a critical resource.

Co-regulating responses play a crucial role in scaffolding a child’s emotional experiences, guiding them toward increasingly sophisticated self-regulating strategies​10​.

Infancy (birth to age 1)

Pay attention closely and respond quickly to the cues children send. Comfort the infant physically (e.g. hug) and emotionally (e.g. speaking) to help them stabilize.

Reductions in distress can also be achieved by modifying the environment.

Toddlerhood (ages 1 to 2)

Speak calmly or remove the child from a stressful situation. Teach them words to express and talk about their emotions.

Preschool-aged (ages 3 to 5)

Model and teach self-regulating strategies such as taking a long mindful breath. Emotion-coach them to learn about their feelings, label their emotions, and express them with words. Teach simple problem-solving skills by suggesting options.

Middle childhood (ages 6 to 10)

Encourage more problem-solving and teach conflict resolution strategies. Continue to coach them on emotion management skills such as reappraising the situation.

Early adolescence (ages 11 to 14)

Teach problem-solving, organization, and time management skills to prevent problems. Coach them on healthy stress management such as exercising and meditating. Teach them critical thinking so they can make better decisions.

From late adolescence to adulthood

At this time, co-regulatory interactions give way to the child’s emerging self-regulation skills. The child is taking on most of the regulating tasks. Now, parents primarily provide guidance for complex problems and emotional support in dealing with significant stressors. They serve as the child’s secure base and safe haven.

parents hug daughter coregulate meaning

References

  1. 1.
    Feldman R. Infant-mother and infant-father synchrony: The coregulation of positive arousal. Infant Ment Health J. Published online January 2003:1-23. doi:10.1002/imhj.10041
  2. 2.
    Fogel A, Garvey A. Alive communication. Infant Behavior and Development. Published online May 2007:251-257. doi:10.1016/j.infbeh.2007.02.007
  3. 3.
    Tronick EZ. Emotions and emotional communication in infants. American Psychologist. Published online 1989:112-119. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.44.2.112
  4. 4.
    Herbers JE, Cutuli JJ, Supkoff LM, Narayan AJ, Masten AS. Parenting and coregulation: Adaptive systems for competence in children experiencing homelessness. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry. Published online July 2014:420-430. doi:10.1037/h0099843
  5. 5.
    Perry NB, Dollar JM, Calkins SD, Keane SP, Shanahan L. Maternal socialization of child emotion and adolescent adjustment: Indirect effects through emotion regulation. Developmental Psychology. Published online March 2020:541-552. doi:10.1037/dev0000815
  6. 6.
    Eisenberg N, Cumberland A, Spinrad TL. Parental Socialization of Emotion. Psychological Inquiry. Published online October 1998:241-273. doi:10.1207/s15327965pli0904_1
  7. 7.
    Krause ED, Mendelson T, Lynch TR. Childhood emotional invalidation and adult psychological distress: the mediating role of emotional inhibition. Child Abuse & Neglect. Published online February 2003:199-213. doi:10.1016/s0145-2134(02)00536-7
  8. 8.
    Mikulincer M, Shaver PR. Attachment orientations and emotion regulation. Current Opinion in Psychology. Published online February 2019:6-10. doi:10.1016/j.copsyc.2018.02.006
  9. 9.
    Brumariu LE. Parent-Child Attachment and Emotion Regulation. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development. Published online June 2015:31-45. doi:10.1002/cad.20098
  10. 10.
    Crugnola CR, Gazzotti S, Spinelli M, Ierardi E, Caprin C, Albizzati A. Maternal attachment influences mother–infant styles of regulation and play with objects at nine months. Attachment & Human Development. Published online March 2013:107-131. doi:10.1080/14616734.2013.745712

About Pamela Li

Pamela Li is a bestselling author. She is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Parenting For Brain. Her educational background is in Electrical Engineering (MS, Stanford University) and Business Management (MBA, Harvard University).

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