Navigating Co-Regulation: Impact and Interaction in Parenting

By Sarah Earles, MS, LPC, NCC | May 10, 2024

You are having a bad day. You have said nothing, but your child knows it. Just the way they know when you and your partner had a fight, even if behind closed doors. This is the principle of co-regulation. You affect them, and in turn, they affect you.

Co-regulation develops within the context of caregiving. Babies lack the abilities and resources to meet their own needs, so they cry out: for food, love, attention, etc. In this way, babies meet their physical and emotional needs. It is out of this co-regulation that children develop self-regulation and the ability to monitor and manage their own selves (Murray, Rosabalm, Christopoulus, & Hamoudi, 2014). While the development of self-regulation begins in infancy, it continues through the toddler, preschool, school, and adolescent years (RaisingChildren.Net.Au, 2021). Even into adulthood, people continue to co-regulate to build skills.

Co-regulation develops through the use of mirror neurons in the brain. This is as simple, and at the same time much more complicated, as it sounds. Mirror neurons allow a person to mirror or copy the movements and qualities of another person (Shafir, 2016). In this way, calmness or regulation can transmit from person to person (Estrada, 2021). Dysregulation, or lack of calm and connectedness, transmits via this same pathway.

When you have a bad day, your body knows it. After all, the body keeps the score (van der Kolk, 2015). Your children, therefore, may feel your unrest in their own bodies, even without either of you voicing it. Similarly, your children may sense tension between yourself and someone else. Children from hard places may be especially aware of relational stress, as their early trauma has placed them on high alert, making them hypervigilant for potential signs of danger (Blue Knot, n.d.). Even without knowing the content of conflict, children become aware of conflict.

What is a parent to do about this? It is certainly impossible for a parent to remain perfectly regulated at all times! A parent can work at regulation in several ways, however. First, a parent needs to know that his or her personhood affects that of the child(dren) with them. This is not to shame or blame the parent, but just to increase awareness. Second, the parent needs to work at self-regulation, gaining skills by which to right his or her own regulation in order to promote better co-regulation with the child(ren) (Rosanbalm & Murray, 2017). Third, when a parent is dysregulated, and it affects the child(ren), the parent can practice rupture and repair, and resilience (Gobbel, 2021). In this way, children learn what to do when they themselves have bad days.

Yes, kids can have bad days, and this can affect parents, too. The difference between parents and children is (hopefully) that parents have more skills, and thus greater ability to self-monitor and reset on hard days. The goal is never perfection, but rather awareness that promotes progress toward healthier relationships. You affect the people around you. The people around you affect you. In some ways, this is a symbiotic process, evidence that people need people, and evidence that learning, whether healthy or unhealthy, happens within relationship.

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You are having a bad day. You have said nothing, but your child knows it. Just the way they know when you and your partner had a fight, even if behind closed doors. This is the principle of co-regulation. You affect them, and in turn, they affect you.

Co-regulation develops within the context of caregiving. Babies lack the abilities and resources to meet their own needs, so they cry out: for food, love, attention, etc. In this way, babies meet their physical and emotional needs. It is out of this co-regulation that children develop self-regulation and the ability to monitor and manage their own selves (Murray, Rosabalm, Christopoulus, & Hamoudi, 2014). While the development of self-regulation begins in infancy, it continues through the toddler, preschool, school, and adolescent years (RaisingChildren.Net.Au, 2021). Even into adulthood, people continue to co-regulate to build skills.

Co-regulation develops through the use of mirror neurons in the brain. This is as simple, and at the same time much more complicated, as it sounds. Mirror neurons allow a person to mirror or copy the movements and qualities of another person (Shafir, 2016). In this way, calmness or regulation can transmit from person to person (Estrada, 2021). Dysregulation, or lack of calm and connectedness, transmits via this same pathway.

When you have a bad day, your body knows it. After all, the body keeps the score (van der Kolk, 2015). Your children, therefore, may feel your unrest in their own bodies, even without either of you voicing it. Similarly, your children may sense tension between yourself and someone else. Children from hard places may be especially aware of relational stress, as their early trauma has placed them on high alert, making them hypervigilant for potential signs of danger (Blue Knot, n.d.). Even without knowing the content of conflict, children become aware of conflict.

What is a parent to do about this? It is certainly impossible for a parent to remain perfectly regulated at all times! A parent can work at regulation in several ways, however. First, a parent needs to know that his or her personhood affects that of the child(dren) with them. This is not to shame or blame the parent, but just to increase awareness. Second, the parent needs to work at self-regulation, gaining skills by which to right his or her own regulation in order to promote better co-regulation with the child(ren) (Rosanbalm & Murray, 2017). Third, when a parent is dysregulated, and it affects the child(ren), the parent can practice rupture and repair, and resilience (Gobbel, 2021). In this way, children learn what to do when they themselves have bad days.

Yes, kids can have bad days, and this can affect parents, too. The difference between parents and children is (hopefully) that parents have more skills, and thus greater ability to self-monitor and reset on hard days. The goal is never perfection, but rather awareness that promotes progress toward healthier relationships. You affect the people around you. The people around you affect you. In some ways, this is a symbiotic process, evidence that people need people, and evidence that learning, whether healthy or unhealthy, happens within relationship.

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References

Blue Knot. (n.d.). Childhood trauma. Blue Knot: Empowering recovery from complex trauma. https://blueknot.org.au/resources/coping-strategies-impacts-and-healing/impacts/

Estrada, J. (2021, May 6). Co-regulation techniques are simple ways to calm the nervous system—Here are three ways to try. Well + Good. https://www.wellandgood.com/co-regulation-techniques/

Gobbel, R. (2021, August 10). Imperfect parenting grows resilience {Ep 46}. RobynGobbel.com. https://robyngobbel.com/amystoeber/

Murray, D.W., Rosanbalm, K., Christopoulos, C., & Hamoudi, A. (2014). Self-regulation and toxic tress report 1:  Foundations for understanding self-Regulation from an applied perspective. OPRE Report # 2015-21,Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

RaisingChildren.Net.Au. (2021, May 20). Self-regulation in children and teenagers. https://raisingchildren.net.au/toddlers/behaviour/understanding-behaviour/self-regulation.

Rosanbalm, K.D., & Murray, D.W. (2017). Caregiver co-regulation across development: A practice brief. OPRE Brief #2017-80. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, US. Department of Health and Human Services.

Shafir T. (2016). Using movement to regulate motion: Neurophysiological findings and their application in psychotherapy. Frontiers in psychology, 7, 1451. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01451

van der Kolk, B. (2015). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Publishing Group.

References

Blue Knot. (n.d.). Childhood trauma. Blue Knot: Empowering recovery from complex trauma. https://blueknot.org.au/resources/coping -strategies-impacts-and-healing/impacts/

Estrada, J. (2021, May 6). Co-regulation techniques are simple ways to calm the nervous system—Here are three ways to try. Well + Good. https://www.wellandgood.com/co-regulation-techniques/

Gobbel, R. (2021, August 10). Imperfect parenting grows resilience {Ep 46}. RobynGobbel.com. https://robyngobbel.com/amystoeber/

Murray, D.W., Rosanbalm, K., Christopoulos, C., & Hamoudi, A. (2014). Self-regulation and toxic tress report 1:  Foundations for understanding self-Regulation from an applied perspective. OPRE Report # 2015-21,Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

RaisingChildren.Net.Au. (2021, May 20). Self-regulation in children and teenagers. https://raisingchildren.net.au/toddlers /behaviour/understanding-behaviour/self-regulation.

Rosanbalm, K.D., & Murray, D.W. (2017). Caregiver co-regulation across development: A practice brief. OPRE Brief #2017-80. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, US. Department of Health and Human Services.

Shafir T. (2016). Using movement to regulate motion: Neurophysiological findings and their application in psychotherapy. Frontiers in psychology, 7, 1451. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01451

van der Kolk, B. (2015). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Publishing Group.