Regulating Your Dysregulated Child with Co-Regulation

Learning to de-escalate our emotions alongside our children’s escalating feelings is the most essential parenting skill we can learn.  Dysregulation calls for connection, and when kids dysregulate, we naturally correct them, thereby disconnecting.  We may cultivate short-term compliance but also disrupt our relationship with them and lose the opportunity to foster self-regulation skills.  When fear motivates a child to “behave,” it can lead to avoidance, resentment, and negative self-talk. Children move into the more primal part of their brain, centered on survival.  Instead, children need support to move toward their mid and upper brains to regulate their emotions.  

Children live primarily in their lower region (Brain stem – Am I safe) and mid-brain region (Limbic system – Am I loved).   

The lower brain asks,” Am I safe?” 

Focus on pre-verbal, right-brained, nonverbal communication to speak to children acting from their lower brain regions. Ground yourself close to the ground while remaining at eye level or below.  Be minimal with your words and offer a hug or sit with them as they let out their tears.  Landreth (2012) illuminates a relationship’s four essential healing messages, “I am here, I hear you, I understand, I care.”

The Midbrain region asks, “Am I loved?” 

Children in this emotional state crave connection.  Speak with intention when communicating. Be mindful of your tone as you offer a message of acceptance, “Help me understand.” Get curious!  Employ attachment-enhancing activities to enhance your capacity to hold your child’s upsets and, ultimately, increase their window of tolerance.  “Let’s use this lotion here to heal old and new ouchies” or “We can sit together and blow bubbles.” For more ideas, visit the Theraplay® YouTube channel.

The upper brain region asks, “What can I learn from this?”  

As your child repeatedly witnesses your self-regulation and their higher brain develops, they will learn from your modeling.

How do we model self-regulation?

Connect to yourself if your child acts out irritability, anger, or sadness. Mindfully engage, and narrate how you are doing so.  You might say, “I’m feeling frustrated right now. I will take deep breaths to help myself calm down.” Your child will borrow your more relaxed breath, body, and tone of voice to manage their emotions and, in turn, their behavior (Bruce Perry, 2021).  As you attune and understand your child, their nervous system will feel safe and secure so that they can learn self-regulation skills.

How do we move from self-regulation to “co-regulation”?

Co-regulation, or regulating you and your child’s emotions, naturally flows out of self-regulation.  When responding to your child, match their affect, then bring your voice/tone/body language down in the rest of your retort.

Example:  Your child throws their arms up and screams, “I don’t want to clean my room!”

Response:  You don’t want to clean your room! (match tone, throw arms up in the same manner)

….” because you’re still playing Minecraft…” (stated with slightly reduced tone and body language)

…….. “it’s not fair……” (said with even more reduced tone and body language)

…….. “and you have a rare Netherite tool to craft.” (stated with calm)


Activities to develop regulation skills:

  • Mindfulness – Use all five senses to engage in a grounding technique:  name five things you see, four things you feel, three things you hear, two things you smell, and one thing you taste.  Splash cool water on your face or squeeze a pillow.
  • Breath – Vocalize, “I am feeling frustrated/overwhelmed. I’m going to take a breathing break.” Engaging in slow, rhythmic, diaphragmatic breathing or gargling activates the vagus nerve by activating the muscles in the back of the throat while exhaling slowly. 
  • Movement – Practice gentle swaying while wrapping your child in a cozy blanket. Bounce, swing, dance, jump on a trampoline, or go for a walk.
  • Oral – Snack on sour or spicy candies – anything that elevates your nervous system.
  • Tactile – Clay, stone
  • Auditory – Create a soothing playlist for you and your child.

The Association for Play Therapy (APT) and the Theraplay® Institute offer more multi-sensory tools designed to increase caregivers’ capacity to hold their child’s upsetness and cultivate secure attachment, depending on which part of the brain their child is in.

-Posted by Farah Shirazi

Scroll to Top