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Brain Science and "Self-Soothing"

Did you know that children are unable to “self-soothe”? Studies show that the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for executive functioning (i.e. self control, self restraint, emotional control, focus, etc.) doesn’t begin to develop until 3.5 years of age, and it continues to develop well into a person’s twenties. The best way to assist this area of the brain in developing is to nurture it with co-regulation from a trusted parent or caregiver.

Co-regulation happens when a parent or caregiver first regulates themselves. In other words, if the parent is feeling overwhelmed, anxious, flustered, or aggravated, they will be unable to offer a calming environment for the child to work through whatever feelings they are having. Use an old-fashioned thermometer as a visual to better understand a regulated vs dysregulated state. The green portion of the thermometer at the bottom represents a cool, regulated person. Their headspace is clear and they are able to make appropriate decisions based on their circumstances. They might breathe easily, with a lightness in their chest. They are able to practice playful parenting, set respectful boundaries, and respond to their surroundings with ease and clarity. As the temperature rises, or situations occur outside of the parent’s control, the headspace becomes more clouded; anger and frustration are at the forefront of the mind, and responses are less thought-out, and instead more quick and punchy. In a parent-child situation, a parent is quicker to act out of frustration than they are to stop and reflect first. When the thermometer is all the way in the red, no connection is possible; co-regulation is not a realistic expectation in this situation. In order to show up for children in their time of distress, the adult must bring themself down to the green level of the thermometer. With repetition of this practice, children are more likely to name their feelings and work through them over time.

My son will be two this summer. His ability to control his own emotions or practice self-restraint has not even begun to develop. Something I do to foster this growth though, is sit with him in his feelings. When he starts to have a big feeling over something that I may deem “silly” (i.e. using a spoon instead of his hands; not being allowed on the bathroom counter to play; not jumping into the pool fully clothed when it’s 40 degrees outside), I name his feeling and support him through it. I get down on his level, and say something like this: “hey buddy, I see that you’re feeling really sad right now because you can’t play on the bathroom counter. You must be feeling really disappointed that you can’t do exactly what you want to do. It’s okay to feel this way. Can I sit with you until you feel better?” - all while remaining calm, using a soothing voice, and following his cues. To be honest, I am proud that I can do this for my son. I know that it is helping his brain develop and I’m teaching him that feelings are meant to be felt, not shamed or pushed down.

Regulating can be so hard to navigate when you don’t know how to do it or if you’ve never done it before. It is so important that we learn how to control our own emotions and feelings so that we can show up in the best way possible for our children. The next time your child is expressing a big feeling, I invite you to regulate yourself then offer a calm and safe space for your child to be co-regulated by you. If you want more information on how to do this effectively every time, enter your email to claim your freebie on my page and I’ll send you the “Three Tools to Enjoy Toddlerhood” audio file and PDF, which includes a sure-fire grounding technique and more, for FREE.

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