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 strengthen their ability to do this and they get to know what strategies help them. 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 co-regulate its kitten through licking, but you would never observe reptiles such as snakes or crocodiles doing this with their babies!
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.