How does regulation develop?
The ability to regulate starts to develop when we are a baby. Long before we can self-regulate we need help from our caregivers. When babies start to show distress, their caregivers swaddle, carry, rock and feed them. Caregivers should provide what is required to help the baby to organise their arousal. As these needs are met the infant learns patterns and rhythms. They learn that when they hear mum or dad’s footsteps, help is on the way.
Regulation develops over time and with experience. Each time a child experiences dysregulation and is able to regulate they learn what helps them. However, this process starts with co-regulation.
Co-regulation is when someone else helps another individual to regulate. We usually think of adults helping children. However, adults help adults all the time. Think about when a friend or family member was upset and you gave them a hug. Or, a time when they were angry and you listened. One unique feature of mammals is that we frequently co-regulate. You will see a mother cat regulate its kitten through licking but you would never observe a snake or crocodile doing this with their off spring.
Toddlers need huge amounts of support from their caregivers to regulate and self-soothe. Whilst they are starting to be more a bit independent, the regulation centres of their brain are still developing. Sarah Ockwell Smith suggests that it isn’t until after a child’s fifth birthday that their brain is developmentally mature enough for them to start to self-soothe or self-regulate. Parents of teenagers would also argue that hormones severely disrupt this skill.
Regulation with the help of caregivers is what teaches children to self-regulate as they get older. They learn what they experience. Co-regulation helps them to develop the brain networks and strategies they need to self-regulate.
Self-regulation is the ability to stay regulated without the help of others. It is the ability to use your own strategies to either calm down or energise. Some individuals need more help to learn how to self-regulate than others. Often individuals with ADHD and ASD need more support to learn to self-regulate. Sensory regulation strategies can help with self-regulation. As can cognitive strategies. We will explore these further below.
Emotional regulation refers to the ability to regulate our emotions. Toddlers and teenagers find this difficult. For toddlers this is because they haven’t yet established the language and brain connections to enable them to regulate their emotions. Teenagers find this more difficult as their hormones and brain connections and changing. They need time to get used to these changes.
Neurologically the front part of our cortex (our frontal lobe) is responsible for emotional regulation. The connections to this part of the brain continue to develop into adulthood. The ability to regulate emotions improves as these connections strengthen. Again, some individuals, including those with autism, need more support to develop these connections.
What about sensory regulation strategies?
Sensory regulation strategies are strategies which use the senses to help with regulation. These are often used to support individuals with autism and those who experience sensory processing differences. But in reality, they can be helpful for everyone.
The goal when using sensory regulation strategies is to help the individual to regulate. They are often using the sensory strategy alongside them, so to support co-regulation, initially. The longer term goal would be that they could self-regulate using the strategy. Programmes like the Zones of Regulation can be helpful to teach emotional regulation and how to use sensory regulation strategies.
Sometimes the individual may need to increase their arousal level. This would mean using a sensory regulation strategy that would make them more alert.
Alternatively, sometimes they may need to decrease their arousal level. So, they will need a sensory regulation strategy to helm them to calm down.
What are some examples of sensory regulation strategies?
I will break this section into two parts. Firstly, I will give strategies that can help to increase arousal. Secondly, I will look at ideas to help to calm down. If you want to read more about sensory strategies you could also read this article.
Sensory regulation strategies to help to increase arousal (or alert)