In her blog post from 12/2/18, What to Know Before We Teach Children Self-Regulation Skills, Mona Delahooke, Ph.D, invited her readers to learn more about teaching children to regulate their own emotions and behaviors, first citing Leah Kuypers approach The Zones of Regulation.
She shares that “The Zones” is a cognitive-behavioral approach that teaches children to recognize their levels of arousal and ways to achieve self-discipline and control over their behaviors. That sounds good and in many cases is effective but does not include the principle that Dr. Delahooke stresses: “Before they can build the capacity for self-regulation, children need to have sustained experiences of emotional co-regulation with a caring adult or adults.” She asserts that social-emotional development cannot be taught, but rather it occurs through caring, attuned relationships with children.
She notes: “This is especially true for children with a history of adverse childhood experiences (ACES), foster children, and neurodivergent children—including those on the autism spectrum, and children who experience high levels of anxiety. These children have more vulnerable nervous systems for a variety of reasons. When we attempt to teach self-regulation skills without evaluating a child’s co-regulation history, we risk asking too much of them too soon. Many children simply lack the neurodevelopmental foundation upon which successful self-regulation is built. Asking them to self-regulate is like expecting a teenager drive a car without any driver-training classes.”
Parents, caregivers and all who interact with children need to appreciate how important it is to promote emotional co-regulation. It is a pre-requisite to successful self-regulation. Dr. Delahooke states that programs “… should teach adults about the ‘therapeutic use of self,which leads to emotional co-regulation, setting a firm and lasting foundation for a child’s self-regulation. In short, human beings need to feel socially engaged and safe in order to learn.”
You might be wondering what “therapeutic use of self” involves. Basically, this means that those interacting with children need to use their abilities to be warm, engaged, open, authentic, interested, attuned and attentive and model these competencies while promoting a safe, caring and trustworthy relationship. It is in the safety of these relationships that children learn to become better at self-regulation. For those interacting with children it feels like they are willing to share their own thoughts, feelings, beliefs and vulnerabilities, often through the use of stories that allow children to feel connected and okay when they have similar thoughts, feelings, beliefs and vulnerabilities.
All of us, especially children, can be co-regulated. We become more regulated when the person with whom we are interacting is very regulated themselves and their self-regulation draws us into becoming more regulated too. This means that adults need to have their own high levels of self-regulation as a result of experiencing warm, caring, self-regulating relationships with others during their lifetimes.
With the hype today about behavioral approaches to addressing children’s difficult or challenging behaviors, we must not lose sight of the power of relationships as the foundation for nurturing and repairing the inner worlds of children, especially those who have experienced childhood adversities. It is essential to appreciate that relationships are the key to the developing emotional health of a child, allowing that child the freedom to one day become a loving, caring, attuned, vulnerable and responsive adult.
Invitation to Reflect
- To what extent would you consider yourself to have been a child who was capable of regulating your thoughts, emotions and behaviors? If you would say that you were fairly proficient at self-regulation, what were the relationships that gave you the safety and nurture you needed to be someone who could easily self-regulate?
- If you are not a child who was capable of regulating your thoughts, emotions and behaviors, can you appreciate that you most likely did not have adults around who were promoting that through nurturing you? What were some of the consequences of your struggles with self-regulation?
- In what ways can you be more intentional in helping the children in your world become better at self-regulation, providing them not only the model of one who is able to self-regulate but also giving them the opportunity to co-regulate with you, to experience the safety of a relationship in which you can attend and attune to them?
Diane Wagenhals, Program Director, Lakeside Global Institute