Winters are the time when the body relaxes, hibernates and prepares to rejuvenate oneself for the coming seasons. This season improves the production of melatonin which promotes better sleep among people. It is essential to listen to your body and provide it with the care it needs and asks for. One beneficial, relaxing activity people can engage in is co-regulation. This has been defined as a warm, supportive and responsive interaction between child and caregiver. Whereby the caregiver helps the child to understand the emotions, thoughts and behaviours they are going through while helping them to express and regulate the same. Co-regulation requires adults to pay attention to the cues of children while responding to them consistently, sensitively and in a nurturing manner.
Co-regulation, as a child
As children, the capacity to self-regulate is limited. Thus, children depend heavily on adults to help them co-regulate. Co-regulation through a warm and responsive adult hence paves the path for the development of a healthy self-regulatory system. Through this, the child learns to accomplish tasks of waiting, dealing with heavy emotions and self-soothing. The child also becomes adept at transitioning between activities, handling uncertainties and new experiences. In moments of stress or struggle with strong feelings, individuals tend to rely on the strategies which they internalised for self-soothing and self-regulation. This core capacity helps one to grow emotionally and socially. Self-regulation is an internal response to any change experienced by a person. At times when one feels angry or irritated and can calm themselves down is an act of self-regulation.
To understand co-regulation, let’s take an example of a child John, who is playing with a jack-in-the-box toy with his mother. The mother places the toy in front of the baby as the music starts. John looks at the toy amusingly but is questioning its presence. To confirm his reaction, the child looks at his mother who gives him a reassuring smile and tells him it’s all okay. As the child continues to look at the toy, hearing the music, suddenly the puppet pops up! Due to the suddenness and shock, John starts crying, looking at his mother. As John reaches for comfort, his mother takes him into her arms and tells him through her touch, facial expressions and tone that all is fine. Learning alongside the mother, the child understands that the toy is supposed to do that. Eventually, the shock and upset that the toy brought will translate into joyfulness with the help of co-regulation. This jack-in-the-box could be any stressful event. Suppose the adult is attuned and responsive to the child in most of the stressful situations. In that case, the child will learn to master new experiences without getting frightened.
When a child’s need is met in such ways, they begin to learn to trust the adults around them. Thereby reducing their demands and increasing self-soothing activities. This is linked to academic and social success later in life. It is also essential here to understand that not only does the external environment affect a child’s co-regulation ability. It also internal ones like temperament play an essential role. Children differ in the way they experience their emotions which are displayed through the intensity. This internal factor must be met with a calibrated response from an adult to facilitate the process.
Co-regulation as adults
Co-regulation is not limited to children but can also be practised by adults. Even though the attunement during childhood influences the way we regulate thereon, this is not set in stone. As an adult, you can begin to understand your own resources and patterns of regulation. It may not always be possible to regulate with a caregiver. Hence you can choose a trusted friend, partner or even a pet! Present your needs and rely on someone consistent and responsive. With a focus on your preferences, your regulatory system will develop and/or sharpen your trust. In this responsive relationship, you can build a foundation which can be stood on in times of confusion and scare. It’s never too late to develop your regulatory system even if you felt less attuned to an adult as a child. Positive control and autonomy will come to you when you slowly build more self-regulatory habits.
A helpful approach for co-regulating with others can be through the acronym AGILE:
Affect: Give focus to the expression and tone of your delivered affect. Ideally, this expression should present practical, warm and supportive implications.
Gesture: These include hand movements along with other aspects of your body language like facial expressions, body movement and posturing. All of these reflect your effect and are absorbed by the individual receiving it.
Intonation: Regulating what you say through intonation can deliver social and emotional meaning accurately. The words that follow gestures should indicate a warm intonation where the true meaning of the interpersonal interaction resides.
Latency: Wait for the child/adult to take in your gestures, words and reflective emotions. Co-regulation is a process based on patience.
Engagement: Before continuing, ensure that the other person is engaged and notice their expressions and body language.
This acronym will help to provide as well as receive regulatory cues from other people. There are many other ways in which one can co-regulate or self-regulate. One can do deep breathing multiple times, repeating self-affirming statements, stretching/moving your body or texting a trusted individual. Seeking validation during difficult times may also help you to regulate. Provide recognition of your emotions and extend this understanding to your trusted one. Even in stressful situations convey to the person in front of you to safely manage and counter your aggressive or impulsive reactions. To navigate this as an adult, it is essential to remember that understanding and expressing your emotions can be a conscious decision. Asking for help can also be a conscious decision.
Begin with yourself: when surmounted by distress, try to understand your emotions. Instead of focusing on the behaviour, try to delve deeper into which emotion promotes such response. In times like these rational control over impulses and emotions can be somewhat helpful. Try using your verbal skills of labelling emotions with a rational response to it. The mentioned negotiation with self will help you to gain insight and deal with experienced turbulence. This is a top-down processing route where we think our way through something. Although slower than co-regulation, a self-soothing ability is vital for autonomous functioning.
Although the image mentions co-regulation as a child, these simple techniques can help you as an adult too
The process of regulation evolves as we grow older. Just as a calming and soothing presence is not merely the need of a child but also of an adult; similarly learning to comfort oneself is equally valuable. In place of threatening cues, each individual deserves a safe response from self and others. It is essential to mention here that co-regulation is bi-directional and a two-way street. It is a coordinated action between individuals wherein each one of them adjusts according to the action and intention of the other in a continuous manner. It can be understood as an interactive dance between the parties involved. Your mind and body both retain the ability to acquire regulation skills throughout the life span. This provides an ongoing opportunity to learn, grow and be more present for yourself. During this pandemic, winter makes a ritual for regulation to help close ones and yourself manage challenging emotions.
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