Written by Cathi Spooner, LCSW, RPT-S
You may be asking what’s the big deal about integrating co-regulation with parents and their children into the treatment process? Does it really make a difference if therapists integrate parents into the treatment process? YES, yes, and a resounding – yes!! Children whose parents can effectively help them co-regulate their emotions demonstrate prosocial skills, positive self-esteem, and effective self-regulation.
What “fires” together “wires” together. Infants are born with immature neural pathways for regulating emotions and behavior and the use parents to help them create strong neural circuitry for emotion- and self-regulation. If you’ve ever watched the Still Face Paradigm videos by Dr. Ed Tronick (check it out here on YouTube), you’ll see how young children seek out and use their parents to help them effectively regulate their emotions and behaviors. As parents are able to be attuned at the psychobiological levels with their child via mirror neurons and resonance circuits (Badenoch, 2008; Seigel, 2011; Siegel and Hartzell, 2003), this sets in motion a synchronization between neural systems in the parent and the child. As children grow and develop, co-regulation with parents will eventually lead to self-regulation for the child. Self-regulation helps to promote resiliency.
Creating resiliency in our children is the “golden ticket” for their success in life. Resiliency refers to our ability to “bounce back” after adversity and continue to grow and thrive despite adversity. When parents help children create early neural wiring for regulating emotions through effective co-regulation, this helps children to develop the ability to regulate their own emotions. This co-regulation requires that parents tolerate their own emotional distress in the moment to help their child use them to be soothed and calmed.
Resiliency helps to maintain homeostasis in our body, and that promotes health and wellness across our life span. When our body is frequently assessing threat and release those neurochemicals, such as cortisol, into our bloodstream, our body will seek to find ways to resolve, heal, reduce the internal threat and survive. Here’s a medical example- when our body assesses a virus, then it will set in motion a process to attack the virus to rid our body of the “invader.” While our body is fighting off the virus, such as a cold, we’re usually experiencing a runny nose, sneezing, fatigue, and are not functioning at our most optimal because we need rest to help our body to do its work of fighting off the virus. We are not in homeostasis when our body is fighting off the invader within.
The same is true emotionally. When we’re feeling overwhelmed, anxious, or depressed, then we often tend to have difficulty concentrating, problem solving, and being patient or willing to try new things. We are not in homeostasis. When we feel good and are able to regulate our emotions, we act in ways that demonstrate our “best selves” while we are in a state of homeostasis- our behavior is calmer, we can think more clearly, our memory is better, our ability to problem solve is intact, we are more patient, we have positive beliefs about ourselves and our relationships. Children are the same – their ability to self-regulate through such things as taking turns, being empathic, sharing and engaging in give and take interactions, performing better in school, and engaging in positive, healthy peer relationships helps to improve their overall sense of well-being and create a positive sense of themselves. It’s impossible to maintain 100% perfect homeostasis all the time. Our goal is to maintain a balance of homeostasis within a range of healthy balance to navigate life’s daily stressors more often than not.
As a mental health professional working with children and youth, it’s important to recognize the importance of parents in the treatment process. I realize the sometimes other adults act in the “parent” role, such as grandparents, aunts and/or uncles, foster parents, and even day care providers. For the sake of clarity here, when I refer to “parents” in this article I’m referring to an adult in the caretaking role for children and youth. When parents sense that mental health professionals won’t judge them, then they’ll feel more comfortable with you. When they feel accepted and valued, they can begin to allow themselves to be vulnerable with you. This therapeutic safety with parents allows the ability for you to help them use the strategies you are recommending to them. Think about some of your more challenging parents – what are some things you can do to “plant small seeds” of trust? One of the most effective ways to do that is to be attuned to them in a compassionate, non-judgmental way – within professional boundaries – show them that you care about them as people – human to human.
Parents are human too, so children don’t need their parents to be perfect. Children need their parents to help them more of than not within the context of their attachment relationship. Parent need to be “good enough” not perfect. Thank goodness!! As mental health professionals working with children, youth and families, we need to support parents to help them effectively co-regulate their child’s strong emotions to maintain homeostasis internally and within the family system. Using the therapeutic powers of play in the treatment process helps mental health professionals engage children and their parents to promote strong attachment relationships. Play is natural to children and helps to develop an avenue through which children and their parents can enjoy the moment and learn new ways of relating and communicating.
Integrating parents in the play therapy process provides the ability to help parents and children learn emotion regulation skills together. Parents can be integrated so they can used by their child as “coaches” to help their child use the emotion regulation and coping skills in “real time.” Using parents as skills “coaches” can help children apply what they learn the play room into their everyday life. Parents are the key to children using their skills in real time. Helping parents effectively co-regulate their child’s emotions provides a lifetime gift to their child to support their healthy social emotional growth and build resiliency.
Here’s a recap:
- Children are born with very immature and underdeveloped neural systems and begin from birth wiringneural pathways based on their early co-regulation experiences – both positive and negative.
- Co-regulation supports self-regulation and self-regulation supports internal homeostasis.
- Self-regulation promotes long term social and emotional well-being and increases resiliency. Resiliency is the “golden ticket” for tolerating life’s adversities and regulating emotions and behaviors.
- Integrating parents using the therapeutic powers of play into the treatment process provides opportunities for parents to successfully co-regulate their child’s emotions for long term benefits to the child well beyond their time with the therapist.
Are you a mental health professional working with children, youth, and families? Check out this free pdf for the Be 5 Framework using intention and therapeutic presence for play therapy. Click here
Badenoch, B. (2008). Being a brain-wise therapist: A practical guide to interpersonal neurobiology. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.
Siegel, D. J. (2011). Mindsight: The new science of personal transformation. New York, NY: Bantam Books.
Siegel, D. J., and Hartzell, M. (2003). Parenting from the inside out: How a deeper self-understanding can help you raise children who thrive. New York, NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin.