More Than Just a Breath
There’s this really great TV show…you may have heard of it…This Is Us. It’s such a great show! Like millions across the country, I love the families, the struggles the characters face, and the writing and moral story of the episodes are so rich. It is a fantastic substitute for Parenthood as viewers move from the Braverman family in Parenthood to the Pearson family in This Is Us. What makes both shows relatable is that both shows understand family dynamics, the various issues almost all families deal with and the power of connection. Tiny spoilers for This Is Us in the next sentences, so skip to the next paragraph if you haven’t seen the episode. In the episode “Memphis” Randall helps his biological father, William, calm down as he faces the anxieties of his impending death. Randall holds William’s face and they take deep breaths together. Earlier in the episode there was a flashback to Randall’s childhood when his adoptive father, Jack, showed Randall the same strategy when he had an anxiety attack. It was a powerful scene to see, the now adult Randall remembering Jack’s help and in turn helping William in the same way.
Technically speaking the strategy used in this scene, breathing together, is called co-regulation.
The concept of co-regulation is such a neglected piece of the parent-child relationship and can cause frustration for the family. When children lose their tempers or are in need of discipline or boundaries, parents commonly ask or demand their children to go to their rooms and be in some form of timeout. The child can become more upset, stomp off or cry in obedience, or some willfully go without much resistance. Some children struggle with honoring parent requests and parents are left wondering why their child doesn’t go do what was asked like they did when they were kids. There are times for when children need to be on their own and should eventually because they need to have that skill on their own, but this frequent battleground can be resolved when your children aren’t quite ready for this in another way than the power struggle between the two of you. Co-regulation is the concept that both the caregiver and child are engaged together, attuned to each other and regulate together.
There are various ways to co-regulate with your child. You can go through various mindfulness and breathing techniques to calm the body down and build awareness. They may need to discharge some energy, so going for a walk or run around the block, pushups, or sports play can get the jitters out. Sharing what you’re feeling in your body and the emotions associated with them help teach your children what to be aiming for in their own participation and link the benefits. Discussing what normal levels feel like so your child knows when they’re done regulating helps put closure to the co-regulation piece. This will allow you to move towards addressing your next parenting needs.
Co-regulation accomplishes a lot in the short term. When kids get sent to their room, they might not necessarily know what they’re supposed to do with that time and space. They might not know how important it is to take deep breaths, to rethink, process through accountability, apologize, and repair. Co-regulation allows you to teach kids these important skills so they can do it on their own as they get more confident and older. Co-regulation can shorten the time that a child recovers from a meltdown, and allows you a chance to do the same. It allows your child to reset and be more receptive to your parenting or coaching afterward, and more open to a re-do. It allows them better head-space to process and come up with better solutions for next time. It’s important to link the positive emotions that resulted from calming down together. These help lessen the devastation of rejection and self-blame children can put on themselves and not feel so alone in it.
In the long term, co-regulation enriches the parent-child relationship well into their adult years. Co-regulation is very important to preventing resentment from building up from your children, and the relationship being impacted later. It can help enrich the adult parent-child relationship with nurturing, affection and depth of disclosure. It teaches your kids that even though they’re in trouble and have to learn through the consequences, they can recover from adult consequences like their childhood ones. This can also yield similar benefit as they navigate their adolescence. It teaches them that you will be there through the good times and rough. It teaches them that you are doing your best to teach them skills necessary to thrive in life. As you wean them off co-regulation and they learn to self-regulate, it teaches them that one day you won’t be around and you have full confidence that they thrive in the world. But by co-regulating you’ve also taught them the importance of reaching out to people and processing through life hardships with others than alone.
Co-regulation is a powerful bonding tool between a child and parent that serves immediate and future benefits. It teaches them more than learning how to calm down or manage their emotions. It adds to enriching future dynamics between you and your child as they get older, and can benefit them as their engage with the world on their own. Like This Is Us showed, it can go beyond just taking deep breaths.