Written by Cathi Spooner, LCSW, RPT-S
As a mental health professional working with children, teens, and families, one of the questions that I regularly pose to supervises when I challenge them to integrate parents/caregivers into the treatment process is – Who has more impact across the span of their development- parents or therapists? Children will be with their families for the rest of their lives and in treatment with therapists usually for only a few months. What is the relevance of co-regulation when working with children who struggle to manage their emotions? Parents are crucial to help their children develop health emotion regulation skills.
Who is involved in co-regulation?
Caregivers play an important role in the development of young children. From infancy through childhood, children need the adult caregivers in their lives to help them regulate their immature neural systems and emotions to develop a sense of well-being and safety. The adults in their life involved in their daily care can be parents, day care providers, foster parents, and other family members or adults acting in a caregiving role.
Co-regulation refers to a child’s ability to use their parent to help them regulate their emotions while parents, themselves, are able to remain emotionally regulated. Schore and Schore (2008) state:
“the attachment relationship mediates the dyadic regulation of emotion, where the mother (primary caregiver) co-regulates the infant’s postnatally developing central (CNC) and autonomic nervous (ANS) systems. In this dialogical process the more the mother contingently tunes her activity level to the infant during periods of social engagement, the more she allows him to recover quietly in periods of disengagement, and the more she attends to his reinitiating cues for reengagement, the more synchronized their interactions” (p. 11).
This synchronized co-regulation begins to build a child’s ability to regulate his/her own emotions and tolerate periods of emotional distress. Windows of tolerance refers to how easily one is emotionally distressed when a challenging situation occurs, and one’s ability to effectively tolerate this distress and regain emotion regulation. Parents with wide windows of tolerance will be able to tolerate their own distress in the moment to remain regulated while they are present with their child who is emotionally dysregulated. Children will be able to use the stability of their parent to down regulate their distress and stabilize their emotions – calm themselves.
Parents with a narrow window of distress tolerance will have difficulty tolerating their own emotional distress in that moment, which may manifest as anger, impatience, curt responses, and/or increased anxiety and worry. Children will not be able to use their parent in that moment to help them down regulate their emotional distress to calm down and regain their ability to engage in positive interactions with others, focus on academics, experience safety and joy.
Benefits of effective co-regulation and integrating the therapeutic powers of play
Children who can effectively regulate their emotions and have experienced positive co-regulation with their parent more often than not tend to develop a healthy self-concept, effective emotion regulation skills, and social competence. Their ability to develop resiliency – the ability to “bounce back” after distressing situations and experiences – greatly increases.
Integrating the therapeutic powers of play provide provides the ability for children to engage more successfully in treatment and strengthen their attachment with their parents/caregivers. Play is the language of children and is essential in the treatment process, especially for helping children to use their parents as co-regulators.
As mental health professionals working with children, it’s imperative that we help children effectively use their parents/caregivers to co-regulate their emotions whenever possible using an approach that meets the developmental needs of children. Caregivers’ involvement in treatment with their children is critical for long-term benefits. Mental health professionals can play an important role helping children effectively use their caregivers to regulate their emotions and supporting parents in that process.
Are you a mental health professional working with children, youth, and families using play therapy? Check out this free pdf for the Be 5 Framework using intention and therapeutic presence with play therapy. Click here
Schaefer, C. E., and Drewes, A. A. (Eds.) (2014). The therapeutic powers of play: 20 core agents of change. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Schore, J. R., and Schore, A. N. (2008). Modern attachment theory: The central role of affect regulation in development and treatment. Clinical Social Work Journal, 36, 9-20. Doi.10.1007/s10615-007-0111-7