Our job as parents: The co-pilot
Our babies are born with an automatic regulation system that helps them survive. They cry, suck, breathe, blink, throw their arms and legs around, sleep and wake-up. As our children grow they begin to develop the ability to regulate themselves, both physically (e.g. being able to control when they go to the toilet) and emotionally (being able to feel and understand emotions whilst not always acting on them e.g. not hitting your brother when he has annoyed you). Essentially they go from auto-regulation to self-regulation. As co-pilot parents, our special task is to help our children develop these skills (both physical and emotional).
We support them learning to sit up, crawl and walk. We help them learn to feed themselves, and later prepare their own food. We also help them learn to tolerate difficult feelings and express what their emotional needs might be (e.g. “I am feeling really sad because my hamster died, I need a cuddle”). Essentially, we are our children’s co-pilots. We co-regulate them to help them build the skills to self-regulate. We tend to do this naturally as parents. Think about your child wanting a toy in the toy shop they cannot have. You may distract them by moving them to something else. You may negotiate with them - “Oh this would make a lovely birthday present, shall we tell Grandma?” - or you might validate how your child is feeling, “Oh I can see how upset you are because you want the toy, but not today”. Here we are trying to down-regulate our child so their feelings don’t escalate into distress that becomes unmanageable.
In other situations we might need to up-regulate our child and get them excited about something they do not want to do. Going to a play-date they are worried about or a first sleep-over. We are likely to talk in an excited voice and go through all the positives that might happen to excite or encourage our child to be more motivated to give it a go.
All of these little interactions we have with our toddlers and children every day, our tone of voice, body language, the words we use, build up our children’s ability to link feelings, thoughts and actions; and as they grow and develop they are able to do this for themselves more and more.
Sometimes as a parent we might not be the most helpful co-pilots. We might co-escalate instead of co-regulate. We may start shouting or get cross with our child for being distressed, “I can’t cope with this right now, you always do this at the worst possible time!” We might be pre-occupied or our own stress system might be triggered by our children’s distress and we find ourselves shutting down and not providing any response. Sometimes we might swing between the two, which can feel really confusing for others.
Often our own experiences of being parented will be reflected in the way we co-regulate our children, or even other adults. Our child’s temperament might make it harder for us to be attuned with or responsive to them. My sons are very easy to co-regulate, they probably need up-regulating more than down-regulating and they seem to be easy to comfort. This suits my approach well. However, my daughter has a completely different way of communicating emotions. She tends to escalate her feelings very quickly and be less responsive to a calm approach. We therefore have more challenges together, because she often sees my response to her distress as not being big enough; she sees my calmness as me not caring. Many time over the years I have ended up finding myself failing at being a good co-pilot as I have become as distraught as her as things escalate between us. I have learned that I have to pay more obvious active attention to her when she is distressed, and then really explain out loud what is happening and how I care, so she understands that I am seeing her and not ignoring her pain. I am just trying not to escalate it.
Our children will rely on other people in their lives to help them learn these skills through co-regulation, grandparents, older siblings, school staff, friends. Indeed, even as adults we are likely to rely on others at times to help us co-regulate. Some people might be better at it than others. We might have relationships which we turn to when we are distressed because we know in that moment that person will help us co-regulate; they will give us space, connect with us, validate our feelings and help us feel understood. We may find our children even do this for us. When I am openly distressed quite often it is my daughter who is most responsive. She might put the kettle on and make me a cup of tea. A gesture of her caring and wanting to help. It might be your partner or friend. Whoever it is you will recognise that moment when someone has helped co-regulate you, rather than adding to or diminishing your distress.
Think of yourself as a co-pilot, supporting your child with their daily tasks and feelings. What kind of co-pilot are you? Do you tend to take over and get the task done? Do you take a back-seat and let them take the lead?
How does your style of co-piloting change when you are experiencing stress? Do you tend to go to one or other of the extremes above?
Think of your child/children.
Does he or she tend to need your support to down-regulate? That is, if they are distressed or excited, do they rely on you to help calm them? What kind of situations do they need this in?
Does he or she need your help to up-regulate? That is, do they need you to encourage them or provide the energy or motivation to do things they are reluctant to do? What kind of situations do they need this in?
What situations do you find yourself co-escalating (increasing your child’s distress unintentionally)? What things might you do or say that despite your best intentions escalate distress?