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.
Excellent article! Excellent, excellent!
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.
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!
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.
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! 😊
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.
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.
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.♥️
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.
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.
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 for the work you and your team do! I hope the article is helpful to them.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.♥️
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….
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.♥️
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.
You’re so welcome Darcie. I’m really pleased it resonated.
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.
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.
Your articles always make me feel so much calmer & make me strive to be a better parent to my anxious girls – thankyou
You’re so welcome. I’m pleased they’re helpful.
Thank you, I needed this help.