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Parents play a crucial role in the social and emotional development of their children. Barring any neurological disorders, a child learns to self-regulate in age appropriate ways. Caregivers expect to be getting up at all hours with a fussy baby, settling disputes between dueling toddlers, and slaying the dragon hiding in the closet. With each passing year, adults expect children to soothe themselves, resolve their own conflicts, and move through the world independently.
The truth is, self-regulation is dependent upon co-regulation with parents, caregivers, coaches, and teachers. This instinctive coping mechanism, passed from adult to child, is a set of strategies used by adults to support youth in self-regulating, according to Co-Regulation From Birth Through Young Adulthood: A Practice Brief.
Young children aren’t the only group in need of co-regulation. An adolescent’s neurobiological development is at a rate second only to infancy. At this rapid pace of maturation, tweens, teens and young adults need adult support through middle and high school transitions, hormonal swings, heartbreak, friendship drama, and standardized tests. Young people are still learning their internal and external triggers, don’t recognize the severity of their dysregulation, and reject the very thing they need: an invested caregiver.
Scientists at the National Institute of Mental Health write that the brain is not fully formed until a person is 26 years old. Until then, youth lack skills like planning, prioritizing, and making good decisions. Almost every parent of a teenager can relate to being asked to sign a form at the last minute or been witness to the meltdown that ensues when their child realizes their cleats are in their other bag at home and practice is about to start.
In light of a teen’s immaturity, adults should respond with predictable, warm, and responsive interactions to help their child understand their emotions and adjust their behavior accordingly. However, this is easier said than done in the heat of the moment when it’s hard for caregivers to remember that the teen standing before them is not a monster (or an adult!). If a parent isn’t careful, they might find themselves matching octaves or tossing out punishments. Perhaps they had a bad day at work, have inadequate support from a partner, or are aggravated that the same issue keeps arising. Their teen’s inability to self-regulate might trigger a flashback from their own childhood. Ultimately nothing is accomplished … the teen is no closer to self-regulation, and may decide his parent is emotionally incapable of supporting him.
The temptation for a teen to turn to a friend instead of a safe adult is high, especially when everyone in the house is dysregulated. Despite themselves, teens need a soft place to land, and parents must self-regulate — breathe, go for a walk — before attempting to support their teen.
Co-regulating with the prefrontal cortex-challenged is as necessary as rocking a baby to sleep, and there is a sequence to doing so. The co-regulation framework suggests that adults self-regulate first, then they co-regulate with a teen — and afterward, the teen is able to develop self-regulation. This triad works to foster independence in youth. It will take years for kids to master self-regulation, and they cannot do it without a caring adult. Far from coddling, co-regulation is an emotional support bridge that helps teens achieve well-being, academic success, problem solving skills, impulse control, and organizational abilities.
There are many ways adults can co-regulate with teens. One way is holding space. Just be there, inhaling and exhaling at a calm pace to bring the noise down. If it’s a heartbreak, co-regulation could be as simple as “holding a teenager’s hand”, says Parent Coach Dr. Ann-Louise Lockhart. The power of touch cannot be underestimated as it nonverbally communicates love, attachment, and I see you to youth in distress. The physically- and emotionally-present adult provides safety for a young person, who eventually learns to successfully move through intense feelings on their own.
Strategies for co-regulating are easy to follow. Lead with compassion and avoid judgement; teens need room to make mistakes, and knowing that a trusted adult will be there to offer affection and validation is necessary for their emotional development. Create supportive environments for kids to thrive. Designate a safe zone, with clear rules of the road to ensure maximum opportunities for everyone in the group. Clarity on the process limits misunderstanding in group dynamics and provides a path forward when ideas conflict. Model achievable social and emotional skills like reading a room, stress management, and problem solving. Adults can teach kids how to pivot if they are running hot and everyone else is cool. The final elements are positive reinforcement and practice. Just as parents encourage their child to get back up on their bicycle whenever they fall, kids need time — and opportunities — to grow socially and emotionally.
Co-regulation, no matter the age or stage, is an essential tool for self-regulation … and it’s a gift that parents and caregivers give their children from infancy to adulthood.
Nefertiti Austin is the author of Motherhood So White: A Memoir of Race, Gender and Parenting in America. She lives with her two children in Los Angeles.
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