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  • Writer's pictureTricia Thornton

Do your children feel what you feel?

Do you ever have your children look at you and say, "Why are you stressed?" or "Why are you frustrated?" or "Why are you sad?" or "Why are you excited?". And, the next minute, the children are mimicking your emotion. This concept is called co-regulation. I see this in my own family as well as in my play therapy office. First, what is regulation? In general, it refers to adjusting your response to change. Hence, self regulation is an internal response to a situation or emotion.

Co-regulation was termed first as an interaction with an infant and their caregiver. A baby will coo with delight as the caregiver smiles and gestures. When the adult turns away and shows no affect, the baby tries to get the attention back and eventually will start to cry and become agitated. It is clear that the baby feeds off the emotion of the caregiver. In recent years, the term co-regulation has been broadened to positive adjustment of emotion between individuals across the lifespan.

How does this impact your household or in outside relationships? In simple terms, when one person is stressed, the other individual will often become stressed. However, learning to have positive co-regulation can occur. Think of it as a triangle. Each point represents a crucial part of completing the shape. Each point is individually important and dependent on the other. First, there must be positive and interactive relationships between the two individuals. Second, clear boundaries and a safe, loving environment must be in place. Third, a sense of modeling and learning self-regulation skills from one to the other can take place.

When one of the three areas is not strong, then co-regulation may not occur or at least fully. So, if a parent is going through a heightened emotional event or stage in their life or an outside stressor occurs, then, in the case of a parent/child relationship, the child may not develop positive self-regulation skills. This is when play therapy can be of a help to the child and to the family as a whole.

The use of directive and non-directive play therapy can help a child play out their lack of self-regulation abilities. Using emotional response scales such as a "feelings thermometer", the child can begin to physically recognize their feelings. Expanding a child's emotional literacy is key to helping them begin to have positive self-regulation, hence, developing the ability to handle outside stressors. Then, working with the family to validate their individual feelings can help each to model positive emotional responses. The use of filial play therapy can help the family learn healthy boundaries and put a structure in place for positive co-regulation to take place.

In summary, positive relationships can develop when clear boundaries are established therefore modeling self-regulation skills begins. Then, co-regulation can occur in a positive way for the individuals and in the family as a whole.

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