The Key to Helping Your Child Manage Big Emotions: The ABCs of Co-Regulation


Co-regulation is one of the many ways to help your child manage their emotions, find their calm and get back into their thinking brains. As their most powerful social-emotional coach, they look to you for guidance and support on how to handle the situations they encounter. This is an important role in helping your child learn how to regulate their emotions and respond to overwhelm. 

Before we dive into the topic of co-regulation and how it can help your child, I want to remind you that you are a great parent. Your child is doing the best they can and so are you!

What is Co-regulation?

“Co-regulation is when two individuals are in sync with each other, allowing each individual to up or down regulate the other to be calm and engaged.”(Stuart Shanker)   

If self-regulation is the way we are able to regulate our own emotions, then co-regulation is how we help other people regulate their emotions. It is the act of two people providing support or guidance to one another so that both can regulate their own emotions. Essentially, co-regulation uses social relationships to manage emotions.  

L.R. Knost says “When little people are overwhelmed by big emotions, it’s our job to share our calm, not join their chaos.” Emotions are contagious. We can “catch” chaos from someone else, but we can also “catch” calmness. It can be like magic when we share our calm with the people around us!  This is especially important for children, who sometimes struggle with feeling overwhelmed by big emotions. When we remain calm, we are modeling a regulated state for others. And when we observe someone else being calm and we reflect that, we are creating neural pathways for them to regulate emotions.  

I know, I know. This is easier said than done! Let’s look at some ways to make it more practical by using the ABCs of co-regulation. And the key word here is “more practical''. Let’s not expect perfection of ourselves or others. because managing emotions and co-regulation is not easy. It’s a process and it’s not about being perfect!

A is for Assess 

A stands for ASSESS -  assess yourself, your child, and the situation.  Again, this is easier said than done! I have found that one of the best ways to learn to assess yourself is to use mindfulness. Research also supports this practice, which involves being present to the moment, on purpose, without judgement (John Kabit-Zinn). Mindfulness helps you to use your inner PAUSE PAUSE button before reacting. Using the pause button allows us to remain calm in tough situations instead of reacting impulsively. 

Mindfulness allows you to assess the situation at hand by understanding both what is going on within you and outside of you.  Once you have assessed a situation in a curious and mindful way, you’ll be able to access your thinking brain and find strategies to help you move forward and support yourself and your child. 

Mindfulness is something we can share with our children. We do this through simple practices, as well as  modeling. 

B is for Balance 

The B is for BALANCE - to find the balance with your brain and your child’s brain. Co-regulation is all about engaging our frontal lobe (“rational brain”) and balancing the brainstem (“reactive brain”) to support thinking calmly and problem solving vs. yelling or blowing up (e.g. survival mode).  When you are in “brainstem mode,” your brain is not available to teach or support anyone effectively. When your child is in brainstem mode, their brain is not available for learning. 

An escalated adult cannot de-escalate a child. The best way to be proactive with balancing your brain is to make sure you are taking care of yourself and have the energy and  the capacity to care for your child when stressful things come up. Self-care is not a “nice to have” but more of a “need to have.” 

Self-care means looking at basic needs and making sure they have been met (e.g. food, water, sleep, exercise, connection, and sensory input) for both you and your child. It also means being proactive and making time to focus on what you and your children need on a daily and weekly basis to balance your brain and try to cut out or eliminate  what depletes your physical and emotional reserves. This also includes self-compassion -- treating yourself like you would treat your best friend - with positive, kind actions and thoughts.  

The reality is that problem-solving cannot happen until you and your child are out of “brainstem mode.”

C is for Collaboration

The C is for COLLABORATION - to work with your child to solve a problem. Once we have assessed ourselves, our child and the situation and both people are balanced and able to think clearly, then collaboration can happen. This builds trust, rapport and respect in a parent-child relationship.  

First, make sure to get your child’s permission to problem solve, brainstorm and work together. It can help to validate your child’s feelings and show empathy for the situation (e.g. “I know that you have had a lot of homework lately”).  Dr. Dan Siegel refers to this as connecting before redirecting.  

After gaining permission from your child, ask questions with curiosity and an open mind. State your concern using a phrase like “I noticed”. For example, you could say “I noticed that you were upset after band practice,” which gives your child an opening to tell you how they’re feeling. After they have finished sharing, it is time to brainstorm options together. 

Focus on the positive as you and your child collaborate to reach a decision. Often, they will start to brainstorm on their own and come up with solutions without you even having to provide any suggestions. Either way, it opens the conversation in a thoughtful, respectful and collaborative way.

Let’s focus on the ABCs together!

It’s important to remember that kids (and parents) do well if they can! Knowledge and daily tools can certainly help make it easier. This is why I’ve designed a 12 month calendar with activities that you can use in your home. This month, we’re focused on connection and bonding which is definitely beneficial for co-regulation.



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