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Co-Regulation and how to best manage your child's tantrums

What to do when your child is having a tantrum or is really dysregulated.

It can be really frightening can't it? When your child is screaming in your face or hitting and kicking out at you, our natural response is to fight back, to do what it takes to stop this attack. Our heart races, our breath quickens, our muscles tense and we are poised to either retaliate (fight), or run away (flight). The problem is, we know that responding this way only escalates the situation. Why is that?

Roaring lion bares teeth and claws
Sometimes even tiny toddlers can be terrifying

We all have mirror neurons in our brains, they are designed to read and reflect other people's body language and have been a huge part of how humans are a social species. By offering body language that is attuned with the people around us, we are more readily able to bond and access a community which, in evolutionary terms meant that we were more likely to survive! Have you ever been chatting to somebody when you suddenly realise that you both have your arms crossed, or are both resting your chin on your hands? This is the mirror neuron in action! It also explains why we are encouraged to 'come down to your child's level' when you want their attention, by you reflecting their body language with your own, you are appearing as less of a threat to them.

How does this help our children who are experience huge overwhelm? Well, I'm so glad that you asked, as it is a really valuable piece of the parenting puzzle!

When your child is very dysregulated and having a large emotional outburst they are unable to access the part of the brain that is responsible for logic and rational thinking (more on that another day - it's a whole post on its own!), so the more we try to reason with them, the angrier or more emotional they may seem. Does this sound familiar?

A mother holds her naked newborn on her bare shoulder for skin to skin contact
Skin-to-skin time

Now, there are no ways that we can stop a tantrum in it's tracks, sorry! However I can share with you a strategy called Co-Regulation which will help to accelerate the process of calming to a regulated state. In the UK, as soon as possible after birth the baby is placed on a parent or carers chest for some skin-to-skin. This helps to regulate the baby's heart rate, breathing rate and body temperature as the baby is unable to do this themselves. Together adult and infant create something called a 'thermo-static unit'. Co-Regulation is a similar principle where the adult helps the child to regulate their emotions and the way that they do this is by using those mirror neurons!

I know that emotional outbursts are stressful, however if you can present a calm, collected and in control body to your child it will be really beneficial, even if you're panicking inside. If your child is able to look at you and see soft, open body language, slow regular breathing and shoulders that are not stuck up around your ears, then their mirror neurons will respond with 'oh wait, mum/dad/adult isn't stressed, they're not angry or scared'. This in turn will send a message to the child's amygdala (threat centre) who will then in turn begin to dial down the physiological response it had been stoking. If you present as someone with a steady heart rate, your child's heart rate will slow down, this will soothe their breathing rate and eventually calm their body entirely from this fight or flight response.

A mother holds her young child who is cupping her face in their hands
Mirror neurons at work

Your child won't snap out of it, but they will manage to regain calm again much more quickly than had you been negotiating with, shouting at or dragging them to the Naughty Step (again, that's another post for another day).

Top Tip: to be able to do this you also need to feel pretty regulated, make sure you are consciously blocking out ten minutes here and there in your day for you to stop, breath and regulate yourself.

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