Self-regulation is the "conscious control of thoughts, feelings, and behaviours" (McClellan and Tominey, 2014). 
 
Sounds like a tall order, right? It really is. 
 
As adults, we are constantly adapting to our circumstances; learning and growing; maturing in our ability to self-regulate - knowing when to take breaks, avoid burnout and manage our day to day lives so that we don’t become overwhelmed; or learning how to say no to things that don’t make us feel good. 
 
For kids, this is a long and laborious process over a long period of time in development terms. As parents; it is our role to facilitate and model this learned skill during their early years. 
From quite early on, there is a societal pressure to teach your baby how to self-settle. 
 
When you really think about what is needed and involved in order to do so, you quickly realise the ridiculousness of such a request. Expecting a new infant, or even a toddler, to do this is really beyond reasonable expectations - but still, the pressure remains. This often results in fractious children and super-stressed-out parents who are desperately trying to quieten their little ones to meet this unattainable goal of children that are seen and not heard, but also confident and joyful. To be minding their own business and not be disruptive, but also curious and observant. So many mixed messages! 

What is it we really want from our children? And why? 

Coregulation is defined as the warm and responsive interactions that provide the support, coaching and modelling children need to “understand, express, and modulate their thoughts, feelings and behaviours” (Murray et al. 2015, 14). 
 
Coregulation is the earliest form of learning to manage ourselves emotionally. We monitor our children and, drawing on that unique bond and connection you have with your child, you are able to watch for the sometimes-subtle signs that they are ‘coming undone’. 
 
Drawing further on that bond, and utilising the strength of trust built between parent and child, you can offer them a safe space to ride the waves of emotion coming on and use the opportunity to model and equip them with the calming tools that they will later go on to use themselves, when self-regulating becomes a more achievable state of being. 
 
Below are some examples of what this might look like across the age ranges. 

Examples of Co-Regulation 

A young baby of just a few months is laying in their bassinet; they begin crying out for help, signalling for support. Dad is covered in food from the toddler and needs to get cleaned up before he can lift baby. He calls over to the little one and offers his calming voice: “I’ll be right there, sweetheart” along with some shushing. He continues to talk calmly to baby as he changes and, although still fractious, baby recognises her dads voice and there are periods of quiet between the crying out. Perhaps Dad takes a little longer than she’d really like, and she’s hungry. She begins to really wail. Dad hurriedly lifts her, and she snuggles into his chest, but she is still very upset as dad rushes to make her bottle. By now, her breathing is rough, and she isn’t calm enough to receive milk. Dad holds her closely, shushes and tucks her mummy’s top between them to offer additional comfort. He strokes her nose and she becomes calmer, enough to offer her nice warm milk; which she now takes, having been soothed with her dad’s support. 
 
An 18-month-old is in softplay. He wants to run up the slides and keep taking goes because it is just so much fun! But there are other children to consider and his mum tells him no. He continues to try, and she removes him from the area. He becomes angry and screams. “I know you really want to climb up the slide, and now you’re really cross,” Mum says as she holds him close, acknowledging his feelings. He tries to hit her, so she tells him she cannot let him hit her and moves slightly away, remaining at his level and keeping their immediate area safe. “Would you like a squeeze?” He doesn’t immediately want to but, eventually, makes his way to mum; who gives him a big bear hug. His breathing is still rapid, and his body is tense. “Now you give me one!” and he squeezes her as hard as he can. They keep exchanging squeezes until the child becomes calmer and distracted by the warm hugs and fun game. “Let’s go to the ball pit now!” He is ready to explore the softplay again now, thanks to the efforts of his mother who recognises he is unable to reason and soothe himself from the anger he feels. 
 
A 3-year-old wants her sisters’ special doll. She tries to snatch, and everyone begins crying and shouting. Auntie intervenes, “you want that doll, but it isn’t yours and now you’re sad.” Auntie strokes her arm rhythmically as the little girl sits very crossly on her lap and stares at her sister, who is still playing with the doll. “Can you hear your breath? It’s all huffy! Try this with me,” Auntie takes a big breath in, and then makes a funny sound with her lips and wobbles her head as she breathes out. Little one looks unimpressed. “You do it now!” At first, she shakes her head. “Just a little one, quietly in my ear.” The 3-year-old leans in and copies her aunt quietly. This makes her laugh, they repeat and repeat, more exaggerated each time until she is distracted enough that the tension has left her limbs and she is more sad than angry. “I’d really like to do some colouring with you” … and together they colour. Later, they talk about how to have kind and gentle hands, and to ask to play without snatching. 
 
A 4½-year-old was extremely tired after a day at school. In the playground, that morning, his usual buddies played with someone else and he felt left out. Then, in the afternoon, he couldn’t hear the teacher properly and followed an instruction wrong which made him feel silly. At pick up, grandma was a little bit late; only by a few minutes, but he was one of the last few left when he was used to being one of the first to leave. This made him feel a bit anxious. When he got home, Grandma got him ready for bed after tea. He loves his grandma very much. Mum came home from work and they all said goodbye to Grandma. Mum took him to his room and asked him to choose his bedtime book. He couldn’t find his favourite book and became frustrated. Mum was tired and tried to negotiate reading a different book. He didn’t want this and, seemingly as if from nowhere, began to sob uncontrollably. He had really needed the comfort and familiarity of his favourite bedtime story after a day of feeling not quite right, and it had all come tumbling out in the form of big, heavy tears. Mum held him close and allowed him to cry until he naturally began to quieten enough that she could talk softly to him. “I’m sorry you feel so sad. I know you love that book.” She suggested that she tells him the story, which they know so well, and draws the pictures on his back. He wasn’t sure, much preferring they just find it, but mum remembered it’d been left at grandma’s house. “Tomorrow we will go to grandmas and bring it home OK? But for tonight we have to do something different”. The tickling of drawing the images on his back made him giggle and relax, and he asked to draw on her too. They told the story through touch together, and he reminded her of the little bits she forgot. They had a big, goodnight cuddle and she asked him to look after her special bracelet under his pillow until the morning. He nodded off to sleep calmly. 
You can see in these examples how varying the response and approach can be in the age groups, with emotional maturity and understanding being different for each child. 
 
Helping a child to regulate down from a state of distress to calm is a really responsive approach to negative emotion, allowing them the opportunity to feel their feelings, and modelling how to positively move on from them. 
 
In the context of sleep, you can see how, in the scenarios above, the child needed a lot of input from their grown up to help co-regulate. 
 
Now imagine expecting a child, alone and in a darkened room, to do all that work by themselves. It doesn’t seem reasonable at all now, does it? 
 
As a parent or carer, you can help this process by: 
Ensuring their home environment is a place of security and trust to allow them to feel relaxed to exploring emotion. 
Model self-regulation yourself and acknowledge when you may have had trouble doing so; we are all human, so be kind to yourself. If you find yourself having a negative outburst, ensure your child see’s how you overcome that, even if not immediately. 
Provide a consistent approach to negative emotions, so that children don’t feel scared or shamed to experience or acknowledge them. 
For older children, use growth-mindset language that supports self-confidence. 
If you would like to find out more about how we can support you with our reassuring and realistic approach, please join our mailing list
 
Tagged as: Bedtime Routines
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