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Co-regulation Means Connection – Here’s Why

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I find this is one of the most discussed areas of parenting. I totally understand the confusion around this because when our boys were young we were in the era of ‘time out’ and ‘naughty step.’ Personally, I didn’t like the word ‘naughty’ and still don’t, to be honest. No child is intentionally naughty – they are trying the only way they know how to connect and communicate. So we moved forward with ‘time out.’

As with most parents, our directions were that the child would sit in the designated area for one minute for every year of their age, four-year-old four minutes, etc. It was only once our boys had grown up and I learned better ways to deal with things through my work, I realised how absolutely ridiculous this method was, we were totally ill-informed, hence why it didn’t really have any impact whatsoever.

If you stand and ask someone to time a minute for you, then you sit when you think that time is up, it actually highlights how long one single minute must feel to a child. So imagine being sat for four, five, or six minutes! No wonder the children squirm, scream, or shout in frustration. This method is likely to escalate the problem further rather than diffuse it.

To add a touch of humour to parenting sessions and to allow parents to understand I am no expert, that we all make mistakes, I tell the story that our sons won’t let us forget. Let me add, to my knowledge, they have grown up without any issues relating to our poor parenting skills.

Both had driven us mad this day and so they were told to go on time out, one on the front door mat and the other at the top of the stairs. Not the best plan because they could still see each other and continued to wind each other up with hand signals and facial expressions. My memory is not great, but they had probably been told to sit for anywhere between five and seven minutes, if they messed around, another minute was added. Anyway, they had been there for a while as we carried on with whatever we were doing at the time, then someone knocked at the door. My husband opened the door, sliding our youngest son (who was still sitting on the mat) across the floor. Once finished, he closed the door and carried on with what he was doing before. I hate to admit this, but we forgot they were both still on time out and it was a good half an hour before we realised. Not the best advert for parenting skills but it has caused some hilarity between us now they are parents themselves.

I have been lucky enough to learn new skills and be able to support families who may be struggling in similar situations. I try to explain ‘time out’ is not for punishment, it is merely for both parties to take some time to calm the system. So when I tell them to stay with their child, cuddle them because it will help regulate their breathing, touch their arm or shoulder to allow them to feel you are there for them no matter what, I see and hear disbelief.

When a child has gone into meltdown or tantrum mode you have already lost the battle for any form of reasoning. Their thinking brain has completely shut down and they have gone into survival mode. No matter how much talking, bartering, or shouting you do you will get through to that little panicked brain. If we react to their thunder with thunder it will only emit lightning, so we need to be regulated ourselves in order to help them. This is co-regulation.

Once the storm has passed, do something together, a distraction for you both. If you leap in too soon wanting to talk about the situation, then you are more than likely going to escalate the behaviour again and you’re back to square one.

Empathy is key, put yourself in their shoes. Think about what you do and say when you are frustrated or angry, is your child mirroring your natural reaction, is that why it feels harder to deal with because you see yourself in a mini version? When you feel this way, do you want someone constantly trying to talk to you, reason with you, say ‘I told you so?’ Probably not, is the answer. So why do we do this with our children?

Always try to think about what you might want or need in this situation. Personally, I would want someone to tell me it’s OK, they understand, and maybe just hold me at that moment. When calm I will either try again, think again or put whatever it was to one side. This is co-regulation. Adults do this for other adults, so why instead do we insist on using methods that effectively push our children away from us, when it is in this time they need us most? Why? Because we have been told that it’s the right thing to do by experts in the past.

I’m no expert but, believe me, I have great success using and promoting co-regulation through my work with families. Give it a try – the more you use it, the more you will understand the magic of it.

There is a fabulous quote from Ashleigh Warner that I share often and encourage everyone to think about when their child is having a tough time: ‘Beneath every behaviour, there is a feeling. And beneath each feeling is a need. And when we meet that need rather than focus on the behaviour, we begin to deal with the cause, not the symptom.’

Tara Copard is a mental health advocate.

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