In my clinical work with both children and adolescents, there is a certain skill that becomes a strong predictor of wellbeing, healing, and adaptation, and this is the skill of regulation. Self-regulation is the ability for us to manage our thoughts, feelings, and actions. Instead of becoming overwhelmed and reactive, we seat ourselves in awareness of our experiences and make choices around how we wish to respond. When we talk about co-regulation, we describe the interactive process of how one person’s ability to regulate affects another person’s ability to do the same. This is particularly important in early childhood as our infants, toddlers and pre-schoolers are largely dependent on caregivers to regulate. This is done in two ways, first we need to regulate ourselves and second, we manage their environments. As we try to do this consistently, our children begin to learn how to regulate for themselves.
“Oftentimes, we think of social and emotional development as skill acquisition,” says Costa – a member of the National Institute for Children’s Health Quality. “We say, if only we could teach a child not to act out. Or, if only we could give a child the skills to make a friend or resolve a conflict. But even before we start looking at these skills, we need to begin with the fundamental understanding that children first need to develop the capacity for self-regulation.” (Costa, 2022).
Research shows that for children, self-regulation is dependent on predictable, responsive, and supportive environments. Here we can see just how important the caregiver’s role is in building the child’s ability to regulate and understand just how shared this process needs to be for this developmental stage. Below are some specific ways in which we can support our children’s ability to regulate at different developmental stages:
- Infants – infants are almost entirely reliant on caregivers for regulation. Infants will need us to manage their environments and reduce environmental stressors, such as feeling cold, hungry, or overstimulated. They rely on us to anticipate their needs and to be responsive as they slowly learn ways to self sooth.
- Regulation in toddlers is supported by holding age-appropriate expectations and activities. Labelling emotions and giving our children the language they need to express themselves can help in laying the foundation for learning how to respond to different emotions. We can also model calming strategies, for example finding a quiet calm space, taking a deep breath before responding etc. Being in touch with the rhythms of a day, and within play, can also support regulation, so after big excitable moments, we find a way to step it down and chose a calming activity before overstimulation and melt down hits. Finally, we can also redirect attention to regulate behaviour. So, instead of saying no repeatedly (which sometimes as the mother of a toddler I find myself doing more often than not) we should rather tell them what they can do. “We can’t hit the dog, but you can tickle his tummy, do you know how to tickle his tummy?”
- For pre-schoolers, who are beginning to explore their worlds in far more active ways, we can support their ability to regulate by coaching them through solutions to problems, and where safe, resisting the impulse to solve the problem ourselves. We can also help our pre-schoolers here by showing how we can regulate ourselves when we get overwhelmed and talking them through this. So, for example, ‘I am feeling x, I need to take some deep breaths before I respond’. We can also prompt strategies that they can use, so using the same example we might say, ‘I notice you are using a big voice and seems like you are feeling x, lets take some deep breaths, or let’s sit quietly or let’s go for a walk outside and you can tell me what is happening’. Another way that supports children’s ability to regulate is to have clear and consistent rules. You can incentivise rule following, when rules are broken and we need to respond, it is important that there are clear and consistent consequences, which are communicated in a calm manner.
We certainly are not going to get all the above right all the time, it is hard enough in our sometimes-demanding worlds just to keep ourselves regulated, never mind the responsibility of co-regulating with our children. But the idea is that we try, as best we can, to help our little people on the way to find this structure and awareness, that will continue to serve them through their lives when they meet adversity and challenge.
Hayley Roberts is an HPCSA registered Drama Therapist and practices in Douglasdale/Johannesburg. She specialises in early childhood psychological, social, and behavioural support.
Source: Costa, G., 2022 – National Institute for Children’s Health Quality