Y’all know I’m a sucker for an OT, so I was super jazzed to get to chat with pediatric occupational therapist, Katie Crosby, for this episode. She works at a private practice in Chicago full time and runs Thriving Littles on the side, a consulting service where she works deeply with kiddos and their families to explore the parent-child match and look at more of the big picture as opposed to a one-on-one therapy session with a kiddo.
Katie and I got to dive into the difference between co-regulation and self-regulation, when one is appropriate versus another, and how to move from co-regulation to self-regulation. Infants start out by co-regulating, and then eventually move into self-regulation - babies don’t come out of the womb able to self-soothe, for example. But, what does this co-reg to self-reg timeline look like?
Katie defines co-regulation as “emotionally organizing with the support of a trusted other.” We are always co-regulating throughout the day based on how we are interacting with each other. Anytime you share an emotional energy exchange with another, it is co-regulation. Anytime you find genuine joy with someone or laugh at something funny with them, for example, you’re really co-regulating.
However, the topic of co-regulating often comes into play in terms of kiddos’ hard emotions, or tantrums. When a child is experiencing a big, hard emotion, co-regulating looks like the trusted adult being there to help guide the child through the emotions they are experiencing. What it isn’t is the adult saying, “Stop crying,” “Stop hitting,” or “Stop doing that.” The adult should instead guide the kiddo to make sense of the emotion they’re feeling, which is the root of their (probably in this case, negative) behavior. Co-regulation in this instance is what sets the stage for the kiddo to be able to self-regulate down the road. For kiddos to be able to build the skill-set to self-regulate down the road, effective co-regulation must happen repeatedly. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again - we don’t read to kiddos as infants expecting them to be able to read back to us the next day; we read to infants expecting them to read back to us years down the road. Emotional development must be looked at the same way.
Adults must also self-regulate to be there for the tiny humans because it is not their job to find the calm, it is our job to bring it. One of the biggest steps in this entire process as that we as parents and caregivers are working on our own self-regulation so that we can be there for the tiny humans in the moments they need us. What are we doing and bringing to the table so that we can show up and respond instead of react, especially in life’s stressful, hectic moments, like trying to be out the door on time in the morning? What are we modeling for our kiddos? If we lose our cool whenever we ourselves are feeling big emotions, then that is what they are going to model.
What does co-regulating look like in infancy? According to Katie, this can be different from child-to-child. She looks at each kiddos’ nervous system like an individual fingerprint. However, there are also many similarities from kiddo to kiddo. There are eight sensory systems, and Katie encourages everyone to google these and become familiar with them. With an infant, the first step is all about using the sensory strategies, and we would use these if the child is dysregulated enough (having a meltdown, for example) to need them to soothe. If they’re unable to process language (i.e. an infant), it’s best to focus on a body-on-body approach, our presence, and the non-verbal communication systems. Especially in infancy, we have to read other cues the tiny human is giving us since they don’t have the ability to verbally communicate. If they’re making eye contact, they may mean they like what we’re doing. If they are turning away when we’re holding them, they may mean they don’t like what we’re doing. When a baby is crying, it can be difficult in the moment to stop and try to process what it is he or she is trying to communicate with us, and also difficult not to project our own emotional experience on to the kiddo. Try to bring the calm and read their non-verbal cues as much as possible so that you can respond rather than react.
I asked Katie what co-regulation looks like in toddlerhood and how we can start to move into building the self-regulation skillset. Katie referenced Dr. Bruce Perry’s Learning Triangle - the bottom of the triangle is “Regulation”, the next side is “Relate”, and the last side is “Reason”. With “Regulation” we’re referring to the sensory strategies for soothing. “Relate” means applying more distance - maybe being an arm's length away or making eye contact to regulate rather than a body-on-body approach. And “Reason” involves language and problem-solving. Caregivers may have a hard time with this idea because toddlers are older and oftentimes our demands are higher and our expectations disproportionate to their age, but for toddlerhood, we should still go back to the sensory strategies to soothe. Even a four- or five-year-old can benefit from these sensory strategies. So, with this age group, we should still be using sensory strategies, but working towards co-regulation where the toddler is beginning to read their own cues to regulate themselves with the adult there and present for help. What does this look like? If a toddler falls and gets hurt, instead of rushing and picking the kiddo up, we wait for the child to initiate instead. They fall, begin crying, then look to the caregiver with arms out, for example. This is giving the tiny human a chance to recognize what they need on their own. It may be helpful to adjust our expectations for our “older” kiddos, our toddlers - we need to build kiddos’ emotional toolbox as early as one if we are going to raise our expectations for them by three, for example. We need to help them develop these prosocial ways to express hard emotions in early childhood. If a kiddo is hitting as a response to anger, they may need another way to express the emotion they’re feeling. Katie also noted that though some kiddos act out in response to their hard emotions, there are kiddos who internalize instead. These tiny humans also may need guidance regulating their emotions, so we need to be aware and observant and not overlook the “quiet” kiddo who, on the outside, may seem okay on their own. Feeling seen, safe, soothed, and secure, are all ways that we can help kids become organized and calm in the moment. The way we talk to kiddos, the tone of voice we use, and our body posture all have a huge impact on the way we are connecting to them in these moments. Getting down on their level and exuding empathy is so important.
How do kiddos finally move into the self-reg step? We must recognize when a child really needs us and when they’re ready to let go - reading their signals, reading their cues, letting them initiate, letting them come to us, etc. Katie also believes in first building lots of layers of joy, fun, and interaction, because this sets the foundation to self-regulate. When we are thinking about nurturing the brain, the moments of joy, fun, silliness, and spontaneity - the moments they are feeling their best - this is when the child’s brain is lighting up in all the ways we want for development, and this sets the foundation for when things are more challenging and difficult - it sets up the trust, safety, and security the child needs to regulate in a more stressed state. If they are not trusting others and their environment - if they don’t feel that foundational safety in their world, it is very difficult for them to get to the step of self-regulation. Even finding moments of connection in daily routines count for a lot. And, we should make sure we’re not just connecting to kiddos in the negative moments, but in the positive ones as well.
Katie reminds us that kiddos need to be allowed the space to release the emotion first and that we must empower them to recognize that they can handle the emotions on their own, all while being there if they need us. It’s also necessary to recognize and give them the amount of time they need to feel the emotion. Recognize, validate, and make space for the emotion. The next step is doing something to get them back to a positive state of mind, which allowed her and me the opportunity to chat about the connection between self-regulation and coping strategies and coping mechanisms, which we dive into in detail in Episode 38.