Helping Kids with Behaviors: Part 4

Co-regulation

The say the eyes are the window to the soul, but I’d have to say they’re the mirror.

Ever heard of mirror neurons? They’re interesting little guys. I’ve heard there are a few versions of the story of how they discovered these neurons, but basically, they were studying monkeys and their brain activity. During a break, one monkey was eating a banana and the researchers could see certain regions of the brain light up. What was interesting was that the brain of the other monkey lit up in the same way…but monkey #2 wasn’t eating a banana—it was watching.

Here’s what it means: we’re wired to connect. We are wired to understand the internal state of the other person in our midst. Yes, there’s an evolutionary component because to be able to read a room and be able to sense danger is really valuable, but mirror neurons are more than an alarm system. It’s a way of letting us feel what others are feeling. I get to feel my friend’s joy of telling me she’s pregnant. I get to feel the sadness and despair of the mom who confesses she knew the day of her wedding that she was marrying the wrong man. I get to feel loved and not just know it in my head.

Mirror neurons are a fickle friend, though. Have you ever tried to calm your child who’s having an absolute end-of-the-world meltdown while also being panicked about everyone at the grocery store looking at you? Or maybe you’re completely frustrated with the fits and you’ve lost all patience? Or how about this one: have you ever threatened some consequence, but you didn’t actually mean it and your kid called your bluff? They smell fear. They feel your weakness. They’re like horses.

So, say what you mean and mean what you say. On top of that, use your calm mirror neurons when your kid is having a hard time emotionally. Calm brains calm brains. Once they’re calm, then you talk about what happened. Ask them what emotion they felt, when did things go wrong, what could they do differently next time, what’s the lesson you want to teach them, and how can they repair the damage that’s been done?

Before you have that very important conversation, though, you have to get their brain to calm down. Even if your kid is nine, remember what it was like to sooth an infant or toddler. You rocked them, gazed at them, cooed at them. It’s called co-regulation. Sometimes, even as kids age, they still need that help regulating. Many kids with early life trauma are high need for co-regulation. But rest assured that you’re not babying them and keeping them from growing up. You’re providing what they need in that moment and as long as you do that, they’ll need co-regulation less and less. They’ll catch up developmentally. Your kid who struggles with overwhelming emotions, really does need you. He or she needs your calm, compassionate brain. They’re in distress. When you help them calm down, you’re teaching them they can count on others…even on their worst day.

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