Have you ever noticed when you spend time with a person who is anxious and complains a lot, that you become anxious too. Your heart starts to race and your skin becomes hot. You begin to enter into a fight or flight response. Imagine you are sitting in the audience of a comedy show, where every one around you is laughing and happy. How do you feel? Energetic and your mood is elevated. Now think about how you feel when you are holding a calm sleeping baby animal on your lap. They are quietly breathing and cuddling with you. Your heart rate and breathing slows down. You feel calm and content. This is co-regulation.
Co-regulation is the transfer of energy and emotions from one living thing to another. The people you spend your time with can change your physiological state just by being in their presence. So how can this carryover to children? As children grow and develop they spend time co-regulating with the adults and children around them. Every day is a new life experience and the understanding of the world around them has not matured yet. This is even true for teens and young adults. Despite the expectation we have of children and teens to behave a certain way, developmentally they do not yet have the self-awareness to fully regulate energy and emotions on their own. And if we place expectations on them that they are not developmentally ready for, it can lead to negative behaviors.
Children who have experienced trauma, have developmental disorders, mental illness or neurodiverse populations have an even harder time regulating their emotions and energy level. They process information from their environment differently than typically developing children. The behavior of a child is a form of communication. It tells us what is happening internally and how they are experiencing the world.
The first step in helping children manage their emotions and energy level is by having self-awareness and self-regulation abilities as an adult. An anxious or angry adult cannot deescalate or calm a child during a meltdown. If an adult’s heart rate is high and breathing is fast, the child will co-regulate with adult and the behaviors will increase.
Most meltdowns can be anticipated by an adult through co-regulation with the child. A child may show signs of fight or flight prior to a meltdown and that is the moment when an adult needs to be aware of their own present level of emotions to support the child.
Be aware if your child or the child you are working with has experienced trauma or is a part of a neurodiverse population, they may function within a fight or flight response most of the day. These children need constant support to self-regulate. It is necessary for trained therapists to work with parents, guardians and teachers to support these children so that they can learn, grow and have fulfilling lives.
Here are 6 co-regulation strategies to help a child with big emotions when they are showing signs of a meltdown:
- Acknowledge the child’s emotions. “You look upset. Are you feeling angry or sad?” Help the child verbalize how they are feeling. You can use visual pictures of faces of people if they have difficulty with verbal language
- Use simple three to four word sentences or stop talking all together. When someone is upset they cannot process the added sensory stimulation of yelling or lots of questions. Wait until they are calm to have conversations.
- Remain calm. If you are getting upset and emotional, find an adult that can remain calm and remove yourself from the area. An upset adult will co-regulate with the child. If you are alone, use deep breathing and practice calming your own emotions.
- Remove sensory stimulation from the environment. Turn down the lights. Turn off the TV, music, noise, etc. Move the child to a quiet room with less stimulation if you are able to.
- Use calming sensory tools. An occupational therapist can help determine the best sensory tools for the child based on their “sensory profile.”
- Just wait and keep them safe once you have done all of the above.
If your child is struggling with tantrums and challenging behaviors, seek out support for you and for your child. In order to support the emotional and mental health of children it is necessary for the adults working with them to be self-aware. If we do not address the emotional needs of a small child, they can grow into angry and dysregulated adults with bigger emotions. As an occupational therapist I work within the natural home and school environment to help families and children learn how to manage sensory challenges and meltdowns. Parent and teacher coaching from an occupational therapist in the natural environment, whether in-person or using remote technology can support the emotional growth and development of children.
Schedule a free 15 minute phone consultation to learn whether occupational therapy can benefit you and your child. Use this link below and write in the comments free consultation.