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  • Sarina Shirazee

Co-regulation before self-regulation

Too often, I see children reprimanded when they're not able to control their behaviours and emotions. They’re expected to remain calm and happy, not get upset, not display anger, and quickly calm themselves down if they do get angry or upset. If they can’t do this, they may be referred to me for "self-regulation difficulties". ⠀

Here's the thing. Self-regulation is a developmental process. Just as we wouldn’t expect a child to run before they can walk, we cannot expect children to self-regulate until they’ve experienced co-regulation time and time again. Unless a child has had it modelled enough, and their brain has developed enough, they will not achieve regulation on their own.⠀

Have a think - when was the last time you heard a 3 year old say “I’m so angry my sister hit me! I need to calm down. I’m just going to take myself to the kitchen for a drink of water and do some deep breaths”.⠀

Co-regulation begins from birth. When babies are unsettled and we cuddle them, rock them, feed them - we are helping them to regulate.⠀

When toddlers are angry that they can't have the toy they want, and we empathise with them, sit with them, get them a drink - we are helping them to regulate.⠀

When preschoolers are upset because they're not ready to leave their playdate, and we listen and help them take deep breaths - we are helping them to regulate. ⠀

Self-regulation only BEGINS to emerge around 4-5 years. And whilst some 4-5 year olds may be able to regulate themselves, others may not be able to. Both are within the typical range of development. ⠀

True self-regulation is not fully established until our mid-twenties. Even then, we often turn to others to help us feel better when we are feeling low. And we are often quite happy to help other adults feel better when they're feeling low, however when children need our help, we may be reluctant to give it, perhaps in fear that we will stunt their emotional resilience (amongst many other unfounded but understandable fears).⠀

When we ask a child to regulate themselves before they're ready, we risk shaming them, affecting their self-esteem, and affecting their relationship with us. Co-regulation needs to come first.



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