This is the latest catchphrase for parents: Co-regulation. It holds the key to calm parenting. Some are still incredulous, as one wearied media professional looked at me blankly and said, “Calm parenting? What is this foreign language?” Another wisely responded, “That really should be the norm; don’t know why it isn’t.” A third answered, “Maybe, because we’re all human?”
That’s the problem and the solution as well.
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Dubai-based Devyani Singh, a school teacher, recalls being witness to a day that never ended, involving her colleagues and their 11-year-old son. The boy hadn’t fared well in a ‘mental math drill’ in class. He didn’t want his mother to know, but unfortunately she fished out his notebook from his bag. What followed was a yelling match in front of Singh, who was visiting at the time. His mother sent him off to his room. However, he took out his cycle and tried cycling away with a small backpack, but was caught in time.
It was a day of tearful breakdowns, till finally the neighbours intervened. As Singh explains, it took several years for her friend to learn how to deal with her son. Just, staying calm. “She isn’t a calm person either, and so she had to work on herself before trying to understand her son,” Singh remembers.
Sometimes in our heightened emotional states, we forget that children feel things just as intensely and more, explains Tracey Stewart, a Dubai-based psychologist. So, it does anger them when someone takes their toy or knocks down their tower of building blocks.
Owing to this kind of intensity, they’re far more prone to reckless behaviours. And, they’re not able to put it into words, explaining what they feel exactly. So, they will throw a tantrum, break things, scream, yell and say things that might upset their parents.
As they’re submerged by such a strong wave of emotion, there is ‘dysregulation’, she adds. This occurs when parts of the brain that deal with reason and logic are overwhelmed, compelling the child to act in a ‘dysregulated’ state. At that point, you will find it difficult to reason with the child; you can’t start discussing what exactly is making them behave this way. In order for the child to calm down, you need to also maintain a state of ‘infectious’ calm.
Calming the chaos with body signals
How do you find calm in the chaos? Or to be more specific, as one harassed mother asked, how do you remain calm after your child continues to shriek because he didn’t get the chocolate he wanted?
The truth behind co-regulation is that it takes two. You and your child are on the same team; both of you need to be aware of that. According to Sneha John, a Dubai-based child psychologist, your child will model your behaviour. And as you get increasingly agitated, the child will not be soothed, either.
The agitation reflects in your body language, even if you’re not actually saying anything, she explains. “Your body will send out signals like teeth grinding, fist clenching, tapping your foot impatiently on the ground, or eye rolls. The child will pick up on the exasperation, and the anxiety will be further heightened,” she says.
The agitation reflects in your body language, even if you’re not actually saying anything. Your body will send out signals like teeth grinding, fist clenching. The child will pick up on the exasperation…
Instead, maintain eye contact. Take a deep breath first. John emphasises that the parent needs to first make sure that their own feelings are regulated, before dealing with the child. “Do not act impulsively. Yes the child might say things that are very upsetting, so don’t say anything at that point, if you feel hurt,” she says.
Huda Tabrez, a journalist at Gulf News and mother of two, has formed her own techniques after researching different approaches shared by psychologists on Instagram. “I am an impulsive person by nature. So I have had to train myself to not be impulsive. So, what helped me was following psychologists on Instagram, which break down the psychology of tantrums. I learnt the amount of damage it would do to them if I was impulsive; it’s just about one bad incident in one day. It could be a neural change and negatively affect the way they grow up,” she says.
“As a parent, you always want to make sure that you catch the mistakes that had stopped you from growing into a well-regulated person. As I struggle with emotional regulation, I have been teaching both my daughters deep breathing exercises,” adds Tabrez.
She lets them know that it is alright to feel angry, but it isn’t alright to express anger in a certain manner. Moreover, she provides them with the validation that even if they behave in a certain way, she still will love them; a reassurance that she does intentionally. “If I just say ‘that’s a terrible thing to do’ and ‘how can you do it’, it will be very damaging to them,” she explains, as a child wouldn’t be able to comprehend such heavy emotion.
When she knows that her daughter is feeling rather dysregulated, Tabrez provides the comfort of physical touch, which can be hugs for around five or ten seconds. “Giving them a hug, breathing together, or even a gentle ear massage, helps them to co-regulate,” she says.
Don’t use too many words
Say less, it helps.
In the middle of a tantrum, the child might not want to be told that they have too many feelings that need to be addressed.
That might make them scream more.
So, as John and Stewart advise, don’t use too many words when the child is entering the fight-or-flight state. “Sometimes, stillness and quiet, really helps,” says John. You can even sit next to the child, give them the reassurance of a physical touch like a hug or even cuddles that helps in calming them down.
It provides them with comfort and solace. This is some form of validation for them, even if it is not agreement, says Stewart. Validation is a manner of showing acceptance; it tells the child that you understand them, you aren’t judging them, even if you won’t agree to what they’re saying.
The distinction between co-regulation and indifference
Some parents worry about whether this kind of ‘calm parenting’ borders on indifference. However, the experts explain the distinction. In the case of co-regulation, you are addressing the child’s troubles, without getting riled up, yourself, explains John. The child knows that they’re being heard and seen; they will feel it in the touch, the tone and the eye contact.
Being detached is when your child is kicking up a storm on the sidewalk and the parent just walks ahead breezily, according to Miranda Montgomery, an American Dubai-based clinical psychologist. That is counter-productive, in fact, it can induce further anxiety in the child. “They start feeling neglected, abandoned, and this might prompt them to do far more reckless, impulsive or dangerous things in order to gain the parent’s attention,” she says.
“For parents to work together well, holdweekly family meetings,” explains Priscilla Augustine, a Dubai-based psychologist. “You can do it with each other or with older children included and evaluate where things are emotionally within your own relationship and family,” she says. “Family meets display parental unity and it’s that kind of strength that generates a sense of order and calm at home as difficult issues are being addressed in a non confrontational setting,” she says.
‘I’m not being chased by a bear’
When your child is throwing a fit, you can chant the mantra: I’m not being chased by a bear.
American developmental psychologist Aliza Pressman, who wrote the recent book, The 5 Principles of Parenting, outlines why this mantra is necessary. She states the five ‘Rs’, which include relationships, reflection, regulation, rules and repair. We all need that ‘elusive’ sixth R, which is resilience. So, if your child is screaming, kicking, stomping around at night, it might trigger the grownup’s fight-or-flight response.
In these situations, Pressman advises that you tell yourself, “I’m not being chased by a bear,” as autonomic nervous system may have begun to act as if you are. And so, the child will slowly understand that the parent is not rattled. The “emotional data centers” will start to synthesise a blueprint for holding the person together during times of distress, she writes. “What’s extraordinary about co-regulation is that your child can literally borrow from your nervous system to help calm down,” Pressman adds.
And so, the child learns to regulate, with you. “The goal of parenting isn’t to modify behaviour, but to instill character,” says Augustine. “In order to attain the outcome we want with our kids, we need to embody healthy regulation ourselves as parents,” she says.