Most caregivers can agree that dealing with their child’s meltdowns can be exhausting, draining, and challenging. Often, these meltdowns happen when we are trying to get everyone out the door and on time for school, when we are making dinner, filling out another hot lunch form, or at bedtime. We try to listen to our child and validate their feelings, but when their emotions and behaviours continue to escalate, our desire of being a calm and steady presence can transform into yelling, negotiating, or shutting down. This can lead to negative self-esteem as a caregiver, or feelings of guilt and shame.
Many caregivers understand that one of their jobs it to help their child learn to manage their feelings, thoughts, and behaviours. This is self-regulation. Before children can self-regulate, they need to learn to regulate with others (co-regulation) and practice the skills and tools needed to manage their feelings. Often, we think co-regulation means we need to sit right next to our child through the entirety of each challenging emotion and behaviour. While we may do this in certain situations, there are many ways to co-regulate and attend to the unique needs of our own children.
How can we effectively co-regulate? Co-regulating behaviours include building a warm and safe relationship. When your child understands they have a safe and warm place to land, they have the opportunity to work through their developmentally appropriate feelings and behaviours. The relationship you have with your child is vital to co-regulation. Second, it is important to have structure and set appropriate boundaries so your child has a predictable environment. It Is important for a child to have established routines and consistent expectations which they can rely on and understand. Lastly, we need to teach our child self-regulating behaviours through modelling and practice.
The strategies above are helpful in creating a co-regulating environment, but what do we do during the meltdown? Before you respond to your child, pause and breathe. Then, briefly validate them (“I can see you are super frustrated with your shoes!” or “Oh man, learning to tie your shoes is so tricky!”) Then observe your child’s behaviour and pause again. This is when they may take steps to self-regulate or they may not. Your next step as a caregiver is to continue to provide a calm and safe environment while helping your child through their emotional storm. This may include modelling (“I know when I get frustrated, I need to take a deep breath and try again or ask for help”), asking the child what they need (“I can see this is really bugging you
. What would help you feel better so we can figure this out?”), proximity (moving closer to your child, giving them a hug or putting your hand on their back, if that normally helps), or distracting (“Hey! I forgot about this special snack that helps with shoe tying!” or “I know a song that helps me when I feel upset”). You may need to try a few different strategies while you figure out what works best for your child. Co-regulation is a skill that develops over time and at different rates, depending on a child’s individual wiring and their life experiences. For example, your friend’s child may respond to a hug by hugging back and feels comforted, while your child may respond to a hug by getting more upset and frustrated.
It is helpful to be practice self-regulation strategies when everyone is calm. Find out what your child enjoys and set up a space to practice/try some of these activities.
- Deep breathing (pretend your finger is a candle and practice blowing it out, dragon breaths, or counting as your breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth)
- Drink cold water in a bottle with a fun straw
- Eating a snack
- Offer a hug or hug a stuffed animal
- Rub lotion on each other’s hands/skin
- Play with the family pet or take a cat/dog cuddle break
- Make a “calming basket” with fidgets, squishy toys, stuffed animals, etc.
- Playing with playdough
- Do push-ups, crab walking, bear walks
- Play balloon “volleyball”
- Ride your bikes around the block
- Turn on your child’s favourite music and have a dance party
- Jump on a trampoline
- Look at books while listening to calming music
- Do a rainbow scavenger hunt (“Can you find something red? Something orange?”)
As children learn to calm their inner storms, less caregiver co-regulation is needed. The
younger the child is, based on their actual age or emotional development age, the closer the caregivers need to be to the action. Gradually, we increase the space and pause more before intervening to allow children an opportunity to access and practice their self-regulation skills. As we help our child develop self-regulation skills, we are empowering them to manage their emotions and behaviours, navigate challenges, and grow into resilient individuals.