Emotional regulation, part two: Using co-regulation to teach emotional regulation

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  • November 23, 2020

Written by Dr Melanie Heyworth

In the first part of this two-part blog, I talked about what emotional regulation is, and explained why it is so hard for our children to manage.

There’s no doubting that the skill of emotional regulation is an essential and affirming one to acquire. How then do we help our children build, practise, and maintain their emotional regulation, their self-regulation?

How do we give them the skills to manage the frequently overwhelming cacophony of thoughts, emotions, and actions?

How do we support our Autistic children – any children, in fact – to respond rather than react when they experience “big emotions” and face stressors?

Co-regulation: connection not correction

The brain is a social organ (indeed, the amygdalae are social receptors), and self-regulation is a neurological process. And so, like so many other socially driven neurological processes, self-regulation is co-constructed with those around us.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, our Autistic children’s carers – whether they are parents, grandparents, educators, support workers, or therapists – play a critical role in growing, developing, and maintaining Autistic children’s emotional self-regulation.

Research shows that we can cultivate our children’s self-regulation by demonstrating and modelling our own self-regulation through the process of co-regulation.

At its core, co-regulation is about providing the optimal conditions for our own and our child’s self-regulation, as well as maintaining a calm demeanour fuelled by a desire for connection not correction (a fabulous phrase I have borrowed from L. R. Knost).

Establishing optimal conditions

Let’s first look at establishing optimal conditions for emotional regulation. The ideal context for co-regulation is a predictable, safe and sensory-friendly environment. Obviously, it is not always possible to ensure our children are operating within this kind of environment. Let’s face it, if you think of day care, preschool or school, it is hard to think of a less predictable or sensory-friendly environment (and a less safe one too, as is the tragic reality for many Autistic children).

But let’s think about the environments you can control, like your home.

First things first, your child needs a specific location, an explicitly designated place in their home, that is for regulation. This area needs to be a buffer for your child against environmental stressors and triggers that might undermine their self-regulation, not reinforce it. For example, if your child is sensory defensive, it might be an empty, accessible cupboard into which you put cushions, a favourite toy, and noise reduction headphones. It might be a blackout tent with a foam-filled beanbag. For a sensory seeker, it might instead be a sensory pod swing, a trampoline and crashmat, a playlist of music, a sensory toolkit with tangles and stress balls, and a bag of sour chews. For some, it may be access to a steaming shower, a bubble bath, or chewing ice. For others, it may be a combination of any or even all of these or something completely different again. The key for the safe space is to create something that is calming and settling, not arousing.

The point of this safe space is that it is an inviolable, predictable place to which your child can retreat that will sustain their efforts to self-regulate by lowering any perceived sensory or environmental threats. Ideally, it should be co-constructed with your child, and their preferences are paramount in making the area work (that is, get their input into designing the space, into what might work and what needs to be included).

A safe and predictable environment, though, is about more than physical or sensory stimuli. It is also created through consistent routines and expectations, and through well- and pre-defined logical consequences to behaviours.

This will look different for every family. For example, some children appreciate a prompt to alert them to their rising emotional state; their parents may employ a “safe” word to signal to their child that they may find it easier to regulate in their safe space. For other families, their child might interpret any prompt as a demand, which is in turn perceived as a threat, increasing adrenaline and cortisol, and thereby making the child’s regulatory work so very much harder. For those families, a visual reminder could be more successful than a word or verbal communication, or the carer sitting quietly next to the safe space.

What is a constant, however, is that the consistency of adult expectations and response is absolutely crucial to establishing safety. It does not engender a feeling of safety if your child cannot predict what will or won’t trigger an emotive response from you. How often has a little thing – let’s say a challenge, such as tying shoelaces after good money spent on OT and years of practice – been tolerated on a quiet day, when no pressure or timeline is imposed, and you have the patience and capacity to support your child’s fumbling efforts, only to be the cause of your profound frustration-fuelled anger on another day on which you are frazzled and running late for an important appointment?

Ask yourself: can your child expect a consistent calm from you, even in moments of exasperation or provocation?

And what about consequences?

Your child will feel most safe if they can expect fair, just, and equitable consequences that logically follow on from their behaviour.

For example, in our family, I sometimes try cooking a new dinner, one that (on paper, at least) should appeal to the whole myriad of sensory-eating needs that characterise our family. On such evenings, my two eldest children know that there is an expectation that they try the new food, providing that they have agreed in principle to the recipe, and I have given them an inventory of ingredients and cooking techniques to ensure they feel in control and comfortable. If they dislike the new dish (not because of a sensory aversion but because of a genuine but arbitrary antipathy), I do not require them to finish it, nor is there any specific consequence. But, as I explain to them, since I have already expended considerable precious time and energy to make them dinner, they need to procure their own second dinner if they chose not to eat the first. Generally, they end up with a bowl of yoghurt, a cheese sandwich, and some nuts. But they are safe in the knowledge that my expectation, and the consequence of their choices, is predictable in this circumstance.

There is a strong protective factor in such consistency and predictability.

“What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

The example I just gave pre-empts the core tenet of co-regulation: we can’t teach our children to regulate their emotions, if we can’t regulate our own emotions. In essence, co-regulation requires that we – as parents, carers, educators – explicitly teach emotional self-regulation skills through modelling our own self-regulation.

Co-regulation expects us to focus on and develop our own capacity for self-regulation before we ask our children to attempt something that we (as adults) have not yet mastered.

And, indeed, it is our own capacity for self-regulation that is the greatest indicator of our children’s capacity to develop theirs.

There are many ways of developing self-regulation as an adult, and a quick Google search will provide you with numerous approaches and techniques.

For me, I visualise my extensive brain filing system and do some busy work making sure it is in stellar, pristine condition. I find it easier to regulate when I concentrate inwards and block out the “noise” of whatever is overwhelming me by turning my attention to my own internal cogs and gears.

I also proactively plan for how I will respond in stressful interactions to keep my emotional responses measured and not reactive (an internal mantra, a promise of wine and chocolate, breathing exercises, and meditative brain filing).

Your modus operandi may look considerably different.

Regardless of how you achieve your self-regulation, pre-emptive practice of it is crucial. By testing and practising your emotional regulation method, you consolidate the neural pathways between your adult prefrontal cortex and your amygdalae and build a wall – a dam if you like – of calm to counter your own cortisol and adrenaline flood when it arrives.

And make sure that you bring your child’s attention to your need for emotional regulation and response to emotional stressors and triggers. Don’t let the only moment that you overtly address emotional regulation be when you have been unsuccessful in your own attempt to regulate.

I regularly tell my children what I am feeling (and why) and what strategies I am using to regulate myself and my emotions. As an example, tonight I said, “I am feeling sad and quite angry that you spoke to me like that. I don’t feel I deserved that tone of voice and the injustice of it is hard for me to work through. I am going to my bedroom to classify my earrings to help me calm down.” (Admittedly, that calming strategy might seem a little odd unless you know that earrings are a passion of mine!)

Calm connection then reflection: Choose your teachable moment

When we co-regulate, we act with tenderness, kindness, and responsiveness to our children. When we respond – rather than react – to our children’s “big emotions” with warmth, calm, and compassionate empathy, we model self-regulation at its best.

We monitor our affect, our tone of voice and our facial expressions. We evaluate if our affect reflects our loving support and calm connection for our child. Are our words saying one thing, but our demeanour telling a different story?

We assess our body language. Where are we in relation to our child? What are our hands doing, What message does our posture convey? If our child finds touch confronting, are we far enough away that they feel safe? Are we standing over our child, crowding them, aggressive, or down on their level so that they feel parity and equality in our relationship?

What is our intonation like? Is our voiced raised or strained? Imagine that cortisol and adrenaline are infectious (like a yawn is “catching”). Can your child “catch” your stress and distress through your pitch, cadence and inflection?

We practise patience. We wait for our child to have the time to register our calm affect, our compassionate body language, the softness of our tone. We hold space for our child to absorb our calm connection, to feel accepted, surrounded and comforted by it.

And co-regulation also requires explicit engagement, a post mortem of sorts, about what strategies worked – or didn’t – and feedforward to understand what could be done differently, better, more fluently next time.

This engagement, or self-reflection, is a vital step for you, as well as your child. Your child needs to hear you modelling acceptance of what you did not do as well as you could have, or might have hoped to, and they need to hear your apology if you made a mistake. This process gives them permission to see emotional regulation as a journey, an evolution, and to understand that we are all fallible in our regulation when we’re under stress.

Importantly, this engagement, or reflection, can only be effective as a teachable moment when your child’s prefrontal cortex is back in action. That means, you need to wait until all traces of cortisol and adrenaline have disappeared from their system before you communicate. Engage in this discussion too early and you risk a second wave of “big emotions”.

Co-regulation works best when it is not an isolated exercise. It depends on the authenticity and intensity of your relationship with your child. A parent who has demonstrated their interest in, and empathy for, their child’s world, a parent whose actions and words have proven their commitment to learning about their child’s passions and interests, a parent who is devoted to affording their child unconditional love and positive regard, will be the parent who succeeds at co-regulation. Because co-regulation is most successful when your child truly believes that “no matter what” you value them, love them, empathise with them, understand them, and, ultimately, prioritise your connection with them above all else.

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