How do children learn to self-regulate? There are two broad approaches to teaching self-regulation which we can call the behavioral approach and the relational approach. The behavioral approach commonly focuses on rewards and consequences, and might suggest that when a child is dysregulated, it is important to not reward the "behavior." This approach may work well when a child is whining for an extra cupcake, but may not work as well for a child who is experiencing strong emotions and needs support. The relational approach focuses on relationships as the foundation for self-regulation - specifically, the child-parent relationships are key to teaching children to eventually regulate independently. This approach does not focus so much on rewards and consequences, but rather emphasizes that children learn to regulate when their caregivers notice their strong emotions and respond by helping them through the emotions (attunement). In my graduate training, which was mostly from the behavioral approach, the idea of hugging and regulating with a child who is having a meltdown was a non-starter (you are rewarding the meltdown and they will do it more, they said!).
Well, we now know that there is some truth to both the behavioral and the relational approach. Sure, we don't want to teach our children that parents will give in to every demand - boundaries are important. However, ignoring a child who is hurting surely does not lead to better self-regulation, as they are left with no model for how to regulate and no warmth or acceptance around their pain. It is clear that we need to use both approaches selectively, and I propose that the relational approach should always be used, even when holding a firm boundary or setting a limit.
So, how do we do this? Let's say our child is having a hard time after hearing that they do, in fact, have to go to school today. We start with the relational approach: "I know, going to school feels really hard for you today and you just wish so badly that you could stay home with us, and not have to sit at school all day!" We are saying, "I hear you and I understand what you are feeling." The parents stay calm even though they are a bit frustrated that the child has seemingly forgotten that they always have to go to school. "You know, I also sometimes wake up and feel so tired, or cozy, or have other things to do besides work. I get it." We are attuned and relating to our child's experience. Usually at this point, or with a little more gentleness, children feel heard and know they can go on to school that day. The behavioral approach has something to offer in this situation too, as we should make sure that school feels like the best option. If children do need a day home, they should know that it is to rest, and not to be playing their favorite games or watching YouTube all day. If I was a child and could choose between a day of YouTube and video games vs. school, I think I know what I would choose.
The behavioral approach is useful for maintaining boundaries and setting limits, but it does not help when a child is going through something hard and needs support. Usually, ignoring a child's strong emotions just makes them stronger, as the child is saying "don't you see how much I am hurting?" Asking a child to regulate alone, in a secluded room, or as a punishment is just not the best way to teach self-regulation. Instead, children learn self-regulation through the process of co-regulation.
At Panorama Psychology, our child and family therapists specialize in helping caregivers notice their own triggers and reactions, so that they can tune in to their children's needs and respond in more gentle and compassionate ways. If you want to improve your co-regulation skills as a caregiver, know that there is help and hope!