Our children need us to learn how to respond to stress in life and feel secure
Updated: Dec 21, 2021
Co-regulation, connection, safety and a 5-step process for letting go of anger
When babies are born, they cannot regulate themselves and quiet their nervous systems. They look for their caregivers to help them with it. A state of dysregulation happens when our response is out of proportion with respect to the stimulus; in other words, when we have poor ability to manage emotional responses like sadness, anger, fear, irritability or frustration that come from the primitive brain.
Self-regulation is the ability to manage our thoughts, feelings and actions, being able to remain alert and calm at the same time. This enables us to consciously respond instead of react regardless of our strong emotions and the stressors in our lives. Beginning at birth, parents can support self-regulation in their babies through co-regulation.
Co-regulation between parents and children happens when we as the adults have a trusting relationship with the baby or the child. While they are experiencing dysregulation, we support their nervous system to regulate with us through our calming presence. By using our voice, movements or gestures, we can help infants and young children know that they are felt with and attuned to and so become calmer and regulate. Co-regulation does not only take place between parents and young children, it is also possible when children grow up. During the difficult times of adolescence, we can support them better if we learn to regulate ourselves first. Through co-regulation we connect with others and create a shared sense of safety. It can influence our way of perceiving life depending on our experiences in childhood, adolescence and early youth.
“As you co-regulate with someone, the mirror neurons in their brain are activated, and this enables the person in the deregulated state to literally ‘mirror’ your calmness.” —Caroline Leaf, PhD neuroscientist, mental-health expert and author.
When babies grow up with co-regulation during moments of stress, such as when they are struggling with strong feelings, they begin to internalize and conceptualize strategies for self-regulation and self-soothing—in their brains and in their minds.
“The brain is a social organ, co-constructed with others. Most of what we become as individuals and most of the unique wiring of our brains are experience-dependent. This wiring begins and is defined by the relationships in those earliest years when the brain is growing at an unparalleled rate”, says Gerard Costa, PhD, the founding director of the Center for Autism and Early Childhood Mental Health at Montclair State University in New Jersey.
The problem is that we adults are not always in a state of self-regulation. Raising children is inherently emotional and one of the biggest challenges in raising kids is learning to parent “well” when you’re angry or under the influence of anger’s cousins – frustration, resentment, and irritation. If you think about it, a number of key parenting moments occur when we are angry with our children. That's a pretty scary thought. When we’re angry, we’re stressed, our thinking brains go off line and our higher brain functions are pushed into the background. This increases the risk of poor parenting decisions and actions that make the situation worse, not better.
Given that angry parenting is at times inevitable, let’s focus ourselves on anger. We tend to think that the answer to anger is self-control. Sometimes it is necessary to suppress angry words and actions through the use of willpower. Indeed, self-control can keep us from doing or saying destructive things. The problem is, suppressing anger is a self-control battle we’re not always going to win. Trying to control anger is incredibly energy-expensive and tension-inducing. So even if we win, we will feel depleted and tense, which is not helpful if we are trying to be good parents. So, what can be useful in managing our anger? The answer would be in reducing the stressors behind your anger and putting more energy into understanding the anger process.
Anger is a protection mechanism we learned as kids and sets boundaries around us when we feel threatened. It also acts like an armor of defense when there is a situation that we are not able to handle. But anger can also point you to unresolved internal issues from the past. Sometimes it is necessary to first do some inner work to explore what triggers the anger and learn tools to manage the anger as it arises, knowing how to respond rather than react. It is important to learn and practice these tools at times when we are calm until they become almost an automatic response. If we wait to use the tools when we experience anger, we will probably forget in that moment that they exist.
EFT Tapping is a great tool that can help us decrease stress and deal with anger, frustration, resentment and irritation in the moment they occur. Also, EFT can help us get to the roots of our various anger triggers. Studies show that EFT Tapping reduces cortisol (stress hormone) levels by as much as 24% within just one hour of tapping (Church, Yount & Brooks, 2012), calming the reactivity of the amygdala in the brain and enabling us to think more clearly and respond appropriately.
When we are self-regulated, we create a climate of safety in which our kids can feel safe. Even after the worst has happened, EFT supports this climate of safety.
You can work with an EFT practitioner to go into the roots of the problem and you can use EFT Tapping for yourself in order to calm down and be more present. You can also use other easy tools to dissolve anger in the moment. For example, the next time you feel triggered and you are about to scream to your children, do the following:
Remove yourself from the place of conflict (the bathroom is always a private and quiet place to "escape").
Open your hands and relax the open palms upward (if you are sitting with your hands on your laps) or outward (if you are standing).
Relax your jaw and your tongue on the floor of your mouth.
Breathe deeply and slowly for 5 to 6 breaths.
Check to see how you feel and if you still feel some anger continue doing the exercise until you feel the anger dissolve.
This is just a small example of the many possibilities and tools that exist. In the end, you have to find the tool that is easiest for you to use because what counts is not knowing it but applying it at the right time.
Other important components of being able to self-regulate and be there for one's children are self-care and self-compassion. Our children do not benefit if we sacrifice everything for them to the point of burning ourselves out. For us to be able to support our children in the ways they need, WE first need to be regulated and ok to do so. We also need support from others and find ways to recharge and relax, having some space just for us without the children. Self-compassion can be applied in every moment and especially when we go through difficult situations, in the way we think about ourselves and if we tend to criticize ourselves. Sometimes putting a hand over our heart and telling ourselves that we are not doing so badly or that we are doing the best we can, can help us to calm down and not get lost in a sea of self-criticism, which leads to more dysregulation.
In short, to help our children, develop the ability to self-regulate and have a more harmonious life, we must first be able to self-regulate and thus give way to co-regulation. Being this a kind of training that helps our children learn to regulate themselves. It is not always easy, but fortunately there are techniques, tools and support that can help us to be centered, deal with anger and know how to respond appropriately in difficult situations, instead of reacting. In in this way we contribute to the healthy growth of our children and a better climate within our home.
Certified Energy Psychology & Clinical EFT Practitioner