How Children Learn to Self-Regulate:

Co-Regulation and Counter Regulation

Many doctors and therapists believe that a child’s self-regulation comes from allowing the child to calm themselves down when stressed.  Unfortunately, this belief leads to parents/caregivers being told to,

  • let their child ‘cry it out’,
  • isolate them when upset, and
  • ignore their negative emotional communication (meltdowns, tantrums, etc.).

While some of these parental responses can lead to a change in the child’s behavior, if they are used early in life, before a child has the tools to self-regulate, then the child is actually learning to suppress/internalize/ignore their negative feelings/emotions instead of learning to successfully calm and regulate themselves.  This can lead to other challenges if used at the wrong time or in the wrong situation.  Even Dr. Ferber (the ‘Cry it Out’ sleep doctor) has cautioned parents about overusing his advice from the 80’s, but possibly not enough.  When we think about a child’s ability to self-regulate, we need to consider how it naturally develops and how it is one of the foundational components of social-emotional health, instead of simply how to get rid of the behaviors associated with a child’s dysregulation.             

Children first learn to self-regulate through emotional interactions with their caregivers, not a lack of feedback from them (ignoring).  We call these types of interactions co-regulated interactions.  These interactions should be encouraged during play and during times of stress.  However, this does not mean we cheer a child on while they are melting down.  All children need feedback to learn, and ignoring or isolating a child is a lack of feedback.  Children initially develop the ability to understand and control their sensory and emotional perceptions and responses within caregiver interactions during the first 9 months of life and continue to refine these ‘tools’ during the first 3 years. Interactions with parents and caregivers, and the feedback within those interactions, are the most important part of a child’s process in developing and learning the ‘tools’ of self-regulation, as well as communication and other aspects of social-emotional health.

Excerpt from “The Importance of Caregiver-Child Interactions for the Survival and Healthy Development of Young Children, A REVIEW”, DEPARTMENT OF CHILD AND ADOLESCENT HEALTH AND DEVELOPMENT, WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION (Pages 25-26)

  “the infant and caregiver form part of a biologically-based system, and that the infant has active sensory and information-seeking abilities, which are matched in the responsiveness of adult caregivers (Emde & Sorce, 1983). Neonates attend differentially to an array of complex stimuli emitted by other human beings, involving the face, gesture, voice and posture. In turn, the “babyness”, cuddliness, sociability and focused attachment of the infant promote caregiving and reinforce the adult’s emotional investment in the child. This unique match is fundamental to the engagement and learning that takes place during the first few years of the infant’s life. Newborn infants are quite ignorant regarding the workings of the society into which they are born. By age three, however, children are socialized participants in their culture. Rogoff, Malkin & Gilbride (1984, p.31)

Apart from developments in perceptual, motor and cognitive capacities, most of which are now fairly well known, there are specific developments during the child’s first three years that are salient for this review. Self-regulation of the infant’s arousal states, in particular, develops progressively during the first two to three years, starting with neurophysiological mechanisms such as nonnutritive sucking. Caregiver behavior in early interactions with infants plays a very important role in neurophysiological regulation of the infant’s arousal (Kopp, 1982; 1989). The modulating effect of the caregiver’s stimulation or soothing, as appropriate, enables the baby to integrate their neurophysiological states and to synchronize their sensory, motor and arousal systems (Sandler and Rosenblatt, 1962).

These infant subsystems only gradually become coordinated. They need to be exposed to graded stimulation during development, and they also need protection from complex and demanding stimuli that can bombard and disorient the baby. The infant’s neurophysiological stimulus barriers and the caregiver’s modulating activities together play important roles in regulation that assist the infant to achieve appropriately heightened and lowered arousal states, appropriate to the external environment. The infant internalizes what he has learned socially and emotionally from encounters with the caregiver. These experiences contribute to the infant’s enduring capacities to self-regulate and thereby to generate and maintain his states of emotional stability or instability (Schore, 2001a).”

Whether a child is under-stimulated (seeking stimulation or passive) and/or over-stimulated (avoidant, hyper, or reactive), it is necessary that we still stay engaged and interactive with them. Starting in the first few months of life and progressing throughout their first three years, children rely on affect mirroring (signaling of back-and-forth emotional feedback with a caregiver) and these interactions to provide context and understanding to what they’re feeling.  These experiences help them stay calm, focused, engaged, and communicative while processing their social-emotional environment. This is a necessary process for children to learn from, even when it isn’t fully developed during the first 3 years.

To help a child achieve self-regulation, a crucial foundation for social-emotional development, we must maintain engagement with them around a variety of physical and emotional experiences, but we NEVER force a child to engage with us.  To establish engagement as a positive and voluntary capacity, we must playfully become part of the activities a child is interested in. Whether they are running back and forth, looking at their fingers, spinning in circles, rolling cars, et cetera, we need to join them and become part of the experience. By joining their world, entering into their experience, we connect with them and deepen our relationship with them, creating a shared world.  Our feedback, empathy, support, and acceptance in turn deepens their relationship with us.

In the event that a child is overstimulated or overwhelmed by negative emotions and needs a more calm, soothing environment, we use a slightly different approach.  We don’t want to be physically in front of them or talking loudly, quickly, or with high affect. This can contribute to their over stimulation and heightened arousal.  In these situations, being gentile, supportive, and empathetic is necessary.  We should try to figure out what caused the reaction and possibly encourage the child to move to a smaller, quieter, or more enclosed environment (with us).  The key is that we stay still with them so they know that they’re being supported and can maintain some level of connection/engagement with us in those moments. This may mean being quieter, or even silent, at times or giving them more space or even sitting just outside a room ‘next’ to them.  

At these moments of overstimulation, we will use the technique of Counter Regulation.  This technique is used when a child is under-stimulated (tuning out/withdrawn) or over-stimulated (escalating/avoiding/reacting). The moment we see a child begin to lose engagement and shared attention; we should begin to respond in this manner. Counter regulation is to be used to help a child achieve an equilibrium (regulated) state so that they can maintain or establish shared attention, engagement, and basic interaction while working through a difficult moment. This is a socially engaging process where the adult tries to connect with the child around their feelings, interests, and needs.  The adult uses their physical and emotional presence to balance the child out. If the child needs to be more alert or stimulated, we provide them with more excitement, enthusiasm, playfulness and movement, pressure, or touch. If they are already escalating and getting out of control; hyper, impulsive, meltdown, tantrum, or aggressive, then we need to counter regulate by slowing them down. This means we’re going to soften our affect, decrease the volume of our voice, slow down our language patterns.  We become gentler in our approach, and possibly provide soothing physical input in the form of hugs, rubs on the back, or slow rhythmic movements like bouncing or swinging. In the case of meltdowns or tantrums, we NEVER discipline and/or set boundaries or consequences while the child is in the middle of it.  When a child is in an overstimulated/catastrophic state, we always counter regulate first.

Counter regulation is also necessary when a child is self-involved in their own ‘calming’ self-stimulatory behavior. Many children will use self-stimulatory sensory behavior as a way of trying to regulate themselves in a repetitive, rigid, but anti-social manner.  This type of repetitive and self-involved sensory regulating behavior has been shown to rapidly turn into repetitive habitual behavior leading to difficulties building and maintaining relationships.  Unfortunately, this can lead to long-term maladaptive regulatory strategies where a child must isolate or disconnect from their social environment in order to calm themselves. This becomes especially problematic when the physical experience the child is seeking to rigidly calm themselves is not available at that moment.  The child will experience more stress, and significant behavioral difficulties usually manifest.

If our goal is to help children have choices (be adaptive), versus having to impulsively react and only have one option to regulate, then we need to encourage/entice them to regulate off of people as one of their primary sources of comfort.  Other physical experiences can be used as well, but not in isolation. Regulating off of other people’s emotional feedback is necessary for social-emotional health and holistic development. If we can’t stay regulated while engaged with people, we’re going to lose out on learning from our social environment during times of challenge, conflict, or stress.

Counter Regulation is a technique and is different from Co-Regulation. Co-Regulation is a process that is achieved when a caregiver and a child are sustaining a continuous affective interaction.  Co-regulation refers to the experience when two parties, child and caregiver, are feeding off of each other’s emotional state and maintaining a joint equilibrium/regulation, even when one speeds up or slows down.  When this happens, one participant slows down or speeds up to match the other’s ‘energy’. This often happens naturally or subconsciously throughout the interactive process when a nurturing relationship has already been established. These affective continuous co-regulated interactions lead to long-term self-regulation and are the key ingredient for children developing sustainable shared/joint attention, engagement, and eventually conversational language.

Co-regulation allows children to stick with an interaction, even when being challenged.  Children must adapt and adjust to these challenges, which requires them to stay attentive, engaged, and interactive in the face of the challenge.  The emotional and physical feedback from the adult supports the child’s follow-through and helps achieve co-regulation.  The adult is also engaging in the process of adapting and adjusting within the exchange so that each party is able to maintain the interactive experience.  Co-regulated interactions early in life drive social-emotional development and are recommended for all children on a daily basis.  For children with challenges, these co-regulated interactions should be prioritized and provided more frequently.  Counter Regulation and Co-Regulation are integral parts of The Greenspan Floortime Approach®. 

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