The Origins of Self-Regulation
Bela Schug has been helping children grow for over a decade. She has a Master’s in Clinical Psychology and is a licensed Special Educator. She is currently the Family Liaison for the schools in Ludlow and Mount Holly, offering supports to parents of students in all grades. She is also serving as a research associate at University of Vermont, studying effective interventions for the Vermont Family-Based Assessment model. She is a mother of two children and lives with her family in Rutland.
Part of laying a strong foundation for all of Vermont’s children is making sure that kids have nurturing relationships with caregivers to help them learn lifelong lessons in controlling their emotions and impulses.
When we say a child or teen handled a challenging situation well or “acted with maturity,” usually what we are saying is that these actions showed self-regulation. The child was able to stay cool, calm and collected, was able to think things through even when emotions were strong, or perhaps was able to “take a break” to calm down when he was upset. Self-regulation also involves controlling impulses in order to make better decisions. It can be as simple as a child learning to raise his hand in class before answering a question, or as complex as controlling his feelings of anger in a difficult social situation. Self-regulation is an important first step for problem-solving, interacting with others, and following rules and directions. In fact, according to researchers, “high levels of self-regulation in preschool predict kindergarten reading and math achievement. This association of self-regulation and positive academic outcomes continues into the elementary and middle school years.”
Of course, babies are not born with the ability to self-regulate, and young children are famous for their temper tantrums. So where does it come from?
Children begin building the foundational skills for self-regulation from day one, and it starts with co-regulation. Babies and children learn to settle their emotions by the interactions they have with their caregivers. When a caregiver responds in an appropriate way to a crying baby, the baby gets the signal that the caregiver understands her feelings. The caregiver checks to see what her needs are: hungry? tired? wet? overwhelmed? afraid? Once the baby’s physical needs are met, the caregiver works on getting her into a better emotional state, soothing her with rocking and soft singing, or trying to get her to laugh. If successful, the baby takes on a new emotional state, joining the caregiver in feeling calm and happy. For the baby, learning to get into a better emotional state with the help of a caregiver is co-regulation. For the adult, co-regulation requires recognizing the emotions the baby is experiencing and feeling compelled to respond, taking care of the baby’s needs, and then gently helping her feel calm and happy.
In order to do this, the caregiver must regulate himself, too! Hearing a baby crying is stressful, and if he allows himself to get wound up, he will not be able to soothe the baby very well. Another important ingredient is trust. If the baby cannot relax with this adult and let him take care of her, she will not calm down. This is part of the reason why it’s important for children to have trusting relationships—or “secure attachments”—with their caregivers: The baby needs a responsive person not just to take care of her physical needs, but also to build the emotional responses of co-regulation. Children who do not have the opportunity to form trusting relationships with caregivers in early life may have difficulty self-regulating later in life, resulting in a greater risk of them developing drug dependence and relationship abuse.
Co-regulation is not just for babies. As children grow, we keep working with them to help them deal with strong feelings in a positive way, teaching them skills that eventually become self-regulation. Given continued secure attachments, and appropriate help, children develop the skills to follow the steps of emotional regulation more and more independently: notice the feeling, take care of the physical needs, soothe the senses, leading to a better emotional state and hopefully insight about how to proceed. Even adults use co-regulation as an important coping skill: We find someone we trust to talk it over with. I recently heard about a study of self-talk (the things you say to yourself out loud or in your head) which found that people talking to themselves in the second person using their own names (“Bela, get yourself together”) would calm down much faster than those who talk to themselves in the first person (“I’ve got to get it together”). The study did not give a reason why this might work better, but my guess would be that it’s because the person is using an imaginary someone to co-regulate with.
Helping our youngest children develop the skills to take control of their emotions and make decisions based on careful thinking rather than impulses is critical to their success in school, relationships, and life. The presence of at least one trusted and nurturing adult consistently available in each child’s life to help teach these skills through co-regulation is an important part of providing a strong start.