To Co-Regulate or Co-Dysregulate. What to do when their feelings or behaviour get big.

All children can behave in ways that are … not very adorable. Big behaviour can be exhausting and maddening for even the calmest of parents. There’s a good reason for this. Children create their distress in their important adults as a way to share the emotional load when that load gets too heavy. This is how it’s meant to be. In the same way that children weren’t meant to carry big physical loads on their own, they also weren’t meant to carry big emotional loads. Big feelings and bigg behaviour are a call to us for support to help them with that emotional load.

When you are in front of a child with big feelings, whatever you are feeling is likely to be a reflection of what your child is feeling. If you are frustrated, angry, helpless, scared, it’s likely that they are feeling that way too. Every response in you is relevant.

Children communicate through behaviour, and behind all big behaviour there will always be a valid need. The need might be for safety, connection, sleep, food, power and influence, space to do their own thing. We all have these needs, but children are still developing the capacity to meet them in ways that aren’t as disruptive for them or the people around them. This will take a while. The part of the brain that can calm big feelings, the prefrontal cortex, isn’t fully developed until mid to late twenties. Of course, as they grow and develop they will expand their capacity to calm their big feelings, but in the meantime, they will need lots of co-regulation experiences with us to help them develop strong neural foundations for this. 

But how do we help them?

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly and insist they self-regulate, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating.

Regulation isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced through co-regulation over and over. It’s like so many things – driving a car, playing the piano – we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ – over and over – that we get better at it. Emotional regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the vital neural pathways to come back to calm on their own.

How exactly do I co-regulate? 

The first thing to remember is that as much as you might want to fix your young one’s feelings, you don’t need to. They’re safe. They might be struggling, but they’re safe. As maddening as those big feelings might be, they’re doing an important job – recruiting support (you) to help that young, still-in-development nervous system find its way home.

When their feelings are big, it’s more about who you are or how you are than what you do. They don’t want to be fixed. They want to be seen and heard. They’re no different to us like that. Meet them where they are, without  needing them to be different for a while. Feel what they feel with a strong, steady heart. They will feel you there with them. They will see it in you and and feel it in you that you get them, that you can handle whatever they are feeling, and that you are there. This will help calm them more than anything. We feel safest when we are ‘with’. Feel the feeling, breathe, and be with – and you don’t need to do more than that. 

You might not be able to do this every time, and that’s okay. Here’s how that works. We will catch their distress, as we are meant to. This gives us the opportunity to hold that distress with them, until those feelings start to soften. This can be a great thing when we have the emotional resources to do this, but we are human, and sometimes their fight or flight will raise fight or flight in us. We might get angry or frustrated (sharing their ‘fight’) or turn away and distract (sharing their ‘flight’). Sometimes you’ll be able to give them what they need, and sometimes you won’t. Both are responses of loving, beautiful parents, but sometimes as parents we get stretched too far too.

Whenever you can, validate what they are feeling, but let your intentions be clear. This means steering away from neutral voices or neutral faces. It’s hard to read the intentions behind a low-monotone, neutral voice or a neutral face. If your intention isn’t clear, it can trigger a bigger sense of ‘threat’ in an already unhappy nervous system. Sometimes, we might think we’re speaking calmly when we’re actually speaking ‘neutrally’, or low, slow, and monotone. The point is, our calm voice might not always be calming. Whenever you can, try to match the intensity of your child’s feelings (through your voice tone, facial expressions, presence) while staying open, warm, and regulated. ‘I can see how upset you are my darling. You really wanted […] and you’re so annoyed that it can’t happen.’

What if they want space, or less words?

If they get annoyed with too many words, just breathe and be with, ‘I’m going to stay with you until you feel better.’ You actually don’t have to say anything at all if talking doesn’t feel right. Just stay regulated and feel what they feel. They’ll feel it in you that you get them.

Similarly, if they want space, it’s important to respect that, but stay in emotional proximity. ‘Okay, I’m just going to stay over here until you feel better. I’ll be right here for you.’

But what if their big feelings are driving BIG behaviour?

Big feelings and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings are a sign of a distresssed nervous system. They are not a reflection of your child or your parenting. 

Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but we ignore the fire by doing this. As long as we do that, the fire will be getting bigger and the smoke will be getting thicker. Even if we manage to blow the smoke out of the way for a while, it’s not going to be long before that burning building turns the sky a heavy grey again. 

Sometimes, by dealing with the smoke you might certainly get a compliant child, but this doesn’t mean a child who is open to learning. This is because the worst thing for any young one is to be separated from their important adult/s. In the wild, separation would mean certain death. Any discipline that emotionally separates (shame) or physically separates (time-out, thinking chair, thinking square) will drive a young brain to register even bigger threat. The felt sense of emotional or physical separation will drive children to comply in order to restore proximity back to their important adult, but a quiet child doesn’t always mean a calm child. As long as their brain is in ‘threat’ mode, stress neurochemicals will be surging through your child’s body and keeping the ‘thinking brain’ (the prefrontal cortex) offline. This is the part of the brain that can hear rational information, learn, plan a better way next time, think through consequences, make deliberate decisions, and calm big feelings. As long as we don’t have access to the thinking brain, we won’t have the influence we need to guide them towards stronger, healthier ways of being. 

There will be a time for teaching and redirection, but in the middle of a burning building is not that time. When your young one comes back to calm – and it doesn’t matter how long that takes – then have those transformational chats: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can make it easier next time?’ ‘Things are a bit of mess right now. How can you put things right? You’re such a great kid. I know you’ll have some really good ideas about how to do that. Do you need my help?’ Remember, just because you talk about what they can do differently next time, this doesn’t mean that those ‘next time’ things will start happening. It takes time and lots of practice to learn hard things.

Maybe they’ll need consequences after big behaviour, but probably not. The whole point of consequences is to build healthier behaviour, so any consequences have to make sense. So often though, the type of consequences do nothing to teach better ways of being. Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, try, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ They’ll learn a lot more by talking with you when they feel safe and connected and open, than they will by, say, missing out on dessert because they dropped some hefty words while their thinking brain was benched. 

Your own state matters. 

An important part of co-regulation is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. It takes a steady heart to soothe the heart of another, and being that steady heart can be tough some days. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on many of those days we’ll feel the rawness and realness of it all. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human. Let’s not put pressure on our children to be perfect by pretending that we are. Instead, let’s repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them abundantly in love and the warmth of us. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most. 

 

26 Comments

Emily

You are a beautiful soul. Thank you for the knowledge and wisdom and grace. You offer a soft place to land for so many of us. I hope you have a soft place to land, too.

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Allicia B

This is one of the best articles I’ve read about co-regulation and it’s importance in raising our children. I still hold a belief that I can encourage self-regulation faster than it can likely happen and this article drove it home for me that this stuff takes time and that the best way forward is for me to just be there calmly with my distressed child. Thank you so much!

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Elezaine

Hi, thanks so much. I will read it again. I’m struggling with my 5 year old grandson who’s extremely violent. I’m not violent but maybe he has seen and heard his mom in action. Not maybe he did. I’m just too embarrassed to admit it. And I don’t know how to deal with him. But he’s also loving and kind. It’s very confusing for me. He refuses to back down. Maybe time out doesn’t work for him or I’m not doing it properly. I never had this problem raising my own.
😭💔

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Diane

Thank you Karen.
It’s been awhile since I received one of your emails and I always loved reading them and was delighted to get one today. The topic was on point. thank you! 😊

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Joanne

I love this article and I wish it was more reader-friendly to those who don’t seek help from health professionals operating in this space. Some basic examples would be really useful.

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Kathie

Kia ora Karen,

Our two girls have experienced trauma and have big big emotions and behaviours. Your article has so much concrete information on how to co regulate, what is happening in the moment and what a parent can do to help their children with big emotions. We have been parenting for 19 years and are still learning. Some days in can be nearly impossible to regulate yourself in the chaos, and help your child, but recognising this and apologising for this is what we do. After a deep breath I often say to myself and to my husband, “stop adding to the fire”, as a reminder that we are reacting and not responding in the situation. Negative feedback loops can develop, if one does not become the circuit breaker as you say. Thank you for all your help.

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Karen Young

Kia ora Kathie, I think as parents we never stop learning. The times we fall apart in the chaos can be just as life-giving as the times we get it right. We try, we learn, we grow, we repeat. Hold your girls close and love them big, as you do. What happens out of the chaos matters. It’s what softens the fallout that happens in the midst of the chaos and gives all of you a loving, strong, safe place to come back to.♥️

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Yolanda G

Hi Karen,
I work with Latino parents and caregivers taking about parenting and strategies to make better connections with out children. And also I am a mother of the two years olds who surely makes his voice to be heard! and your article was an awesome relieve and a divine advice! I love this statement: “Our capacity to sefl-regulate is the circuit breaker.
Thank you so much.

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Karen Young

Thanks so much Yolanda. Your little guy’s voice is important – keeps letting it be heard. We can never know the good that will come into the world when we give kids a safe and loving space to grow into who they are.

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Andrea Mc

Well done explaining the concepts of emotional regulation and co-regulation, in such a reader friendly way. As a team member in a treatment foster care program, I will be sharing this article with the entire team!
Thank you!

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Geeta P

Wise words and great reminders to take care of ourselves to help our children. Thank you for this useful article. Parenting is hard at times: this information needs to be shared. I will share this article with my teacher colleagues and parents.

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Khristina F

I so needed this today after an explosion last night and me doing all the wrong things until I had stepped away and came back with a better frame of mind.

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Karen Young

We will get it ‘wrong’ with our kids so many times, and every time we do is an opportunity to model self-compassion, self-kindness, openness to growth, and the rejection of the need for perfection. These are also so important. You are everything they need, even when you aren’t perfect.

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Jen

But my son is 18 ( emotionally more around 13) and 6 ft 3 and 260 lbs. His big feelings involve throwing things, breaking things, threatenning to hurt himself or us……it feels dangerous. And scary.

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Karen Young

I hear you. It’s scary when an adult body dysregulates, for you and your son. Safety for you and your son and family is the most important. This means it won’t always be possible to co-regulate or to be a calm presence for your son. You can do everything you can but you can’t do everything. I hope there are people around you who are able to support you so you can support your son when you can. We were never meant to do this parenting thing on our own.♥️

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VM

I find you articles amazing but I’m struggling to forgive myself. I’m 64 with grownup children and I suffered from a father with no emotional regulation. Consequently I didn’t do a good job with particularly my first born. I was stressed and disregulated myself, so I had nothing calm to offer him. Thank you for all you offer – I just wish from the bottom of my heart that I had understood how better to deal with my kids and me when I was 25. Yours sorrowfully….

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Karen Young

There was so much we didn’t know 40 years ago. When we first become parents, our only experience is the way we were parented. We learn along the way. Some parents will be open to this learning and will grow themselves and their children. Some won’t be. It’s not easy and we will make more mistakes along the way as parents than in anything else we do. It’s just how it is. You did the very best you could with what you had until you were able to know better. Be kind to yourself. You were learning too.♥️

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Darcie

Thank you, this article hit some incredibly relevant points for me and the message will be invaluable as I continue to support the children in my life and manage my own big feelings.

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Gmail Chicken

I so needed this right now. We are grandparents helping our recovering alcoholic son, with 50% custody of his 7 year old twins and 4 year old, all boys. Talk about big emotions! Transitioning between households and going back to school is a tremendous challenge. So many dynamics.
Thank you for these articles! I especially appreciate the point that its more than staying calm ourselves. I’ve caught myself with the monotone, quiet, walk-away voice…because I’m feeling angry or simply fed up. Not good. Working on mindfulness and prayer every morning they are with us…with a dose of prozac lol.

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Karen Young

It sounds as though you have a lot happening. Warm, loving, predictable relationships with trusted adults are both healing and protective. Your grandkids and your son are so lucky to have you.

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Liz

Your articles always make me feel so much calmer & make me strive to be a better parent to my anxious girls – thankyou

Reply

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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