The concept of regulation has been on my mind for weeks. How do we understand regulation? Its dictionary definition leaves us wanting: the action or process of regulating or being regulated. Synonyms include adjusting, control, management, balancing.
The growing trend of meditation, yoga, and grounding exercises speaks to the awareness and need for regulation, the act of controlling and managing emotions, in particular, stress and "negative" or overwhelming affect. But what does this mean for children, especially little ones, who are still learning how to manage any feeling that deviates from calm?
Babies do not have the capacity for regulation. Small feelings can evoke strong reactions. A dirty diaper, a rumbling belly, a moment of fear in the face of loneliness, can all trigger desperate screams of protest. New parents often feel overwhelmed by their baby's inability to self-soothe. If only their baby, or their toddler, could just manage some of those big feelings. Life would be quieter and less stressful.
The task of regulating your own emotions becomes exponentially more difficult when you add the additional responsibility of helping to regulate another person. And yet, this mission, this responsibility, may be the most important.
Maybe you've noticed that when you feel stressed, when you feel overwhelmed, your children appear less able to handle their own emotions, even when they attempt simple tasks.
Young children need their parents calm and regulated presence to begin to regulate. This process is known as co-regulation. When you are relaxed, and in control, your child can start to calm down. Maybe you've experienced this before? Many people experience the incredible power of co-regulation in their partnerships. I feel lucky every day to have personally experience the power of co-regulation with my partner.
A few months ago, back when I was trying to do too much, I came home from work exhausted and feeling defeated. The overwhelming pressure of working with severely traumatized toddlers was getting to me. I had been dreaming about them in my sleep. I was bringing my work home with me and carrying it around with me all the time.
On this particular day, my boss asked me to take on another project. I just about lost it. I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes, and, damn it, she noticed. She was kind about it and reassured me that the project could wait, but I felt terrible. I wanted to be a "go-to" person on my team, and I didn't want to burden my co-workers. Our program was understaffed, and everyone was taking on extra work. I pulled myself together for the rest of the day, but just barely.
When my husband got home that night, he could tell something was wrong. All he did was look at me with concern written all over his face; I broke down. I couldn't keep it in anymore. I was feeling stressed out and burned out. I felt so overwhelmed and overpowered by emotion. Luckily, my husband was there, and he just held me and rubbed my back, calmly comforting me until the waves receded.
His calm presence, his regulated state, helped me process my feelings and calm down.
Your children need this from you.
Children experience overwhelming feelings over small issues. They are prone to overwhelm with lack of sleep, hunger, diet sensitivities, changes in routines, sensory experiences, the weather, you name it. You may be called into action many times every day. And every time your child melts down, you have the glorious opportunity to teach your child about regulation, through co-regulation.
For some parents, comforting children who feel sad or who cry comes easier. Offering comfort to a yelling or whining toddler can be hard. But your children need comfort from you in those moments too.
I know, easier said than done.
The first step is regulating your own emotions. So how do you do that?
You know better than I do. Your body, your intuition, your answers here matter.
That said, I believe in the power of ancient wisdom, of learning and leveraging the knowledge and intuition of generations past. Practicing mindfulness and calming your physiology builds critical neural networks in your brain. So that when you are overwhelmed, when you need to regulate, the path appears more clearly. You've walked down this road before.
In my personal experience, the following techniques help:
- Meditation: I practice daily meditation. Often, I only get five minutes of my breathing practice in a day. But that five minutes feeds me for the rest of the day. New to meditation? Check out Start Here Now, a wonderful (and short!) book introducing a basic meditation practice that can work for anyone.
- Therapy: I may be biased, I am a practicing psychotherapist after all, but I believe in the power of good therapy. Like many others, my experience of therapy, as a service, has been life changing. Therapy is a deeply personal experience. In my own work, I have struggled through reflecting on my experiences of childhood, being raised by my parents, and connecting with other people, particularly my husband. I cannot imagine making enough time and space consistently to do my own deep personal work without support from therapy.
- Art: There is an obvious reason why humans feel moved by art. At its root, art is emotion. You don't have to be a gifted and skilled artist to leverage this power. Expose yourself to different mediums and find what resonates with you. Personally, I gravitate to clay and poetry.
- Writing: Many people write their deep thoughts and feelings in a journal or diary. You'll benefit from privacy and the opportunity to "think through" your thoughts and feelings.
- Gratitude: The practice of gratitude involves consistent attention to the things around you that feel life-giving. I recommend writing down your gratitude, as you first start, to build consistency and to keep a record. You can also write letters to people (send them or don't), keep visual reminders around the house, or say a prayer. Each of these actions carry gratitude and grace.
What works for you? Leave a comment and share your strategy with other parents.