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Ask Miss Patti: Co-regulating emotions with your toddler

A soft place to fall when these big emotions take over
By staying calm during these moments and riding out the wave of big emotions, the child will eventually come back to shore and there you are waiting

Dear Miss Patti,

I’m seeing a lot of posts and blogs relating to co-regulation on social media lately. I’m curious what this looks like for toddlers? There seems to be a lot of tantrums lately and I feel like I’m handling it calmly but it doesn’t seem to help at all.

—Waiting it Out

Dear Waiting it Out,

They have such big feelings at this age. So many changes could be taking place. New babies coming into the house, preschooler siblings going to school, big kid beds and potty training. It’s one of those in-between ages. Not a baby anymore but still needing so much help but wanting some independence, so conflicting! Ultimately, they need a soft place to fall when these big emotions take over. So we, as educators, family members, need to be this place of soft, gentle, and calm.

This is easy to say when the child reacts in tears and is one who doesn’t mind touch or closeness. Other children react in anger (fight reaction to stress) and lash out to those surrounding them, usually the ones they love. Our instant reaction can be irritation or the desire to control/stop the behaviour immediately. This brings a sternness that triggers the safety response even more and it’s a vicious circle that now looks like two toddlers on a weird debate team.

I remember a time when my oldest, who was three at the time, was yelling frequently at his younger brother. He himself was going through quite a challenging time and it made me re-examine my practices. I wouldn’t say I had been yelling, per se, but I might have been speaking louder than usual during this time. I had not felt heard by my three-year-old and speaking louder should fix that right? I started paying attention to the way I was speaking and within a week the yelling in our house was gone.

Always look to the environment and this includes you to see if anything happening around them is affecting the behaviour. Sometimes, like you said, you are calm, and they still take a long time to bring it down. Like everything, everyone reacts differently. Some children just need more time to register that we’re not engaging and that we’re here with them, waiting and still there when it has passed. Hang in there, ride out the waves and talk a lot when the storm passes about how we can handle those big feelings next time. And we keep having this talk until we don’t need to anymore. Again, every person is different. Some children figure it out after one talk and others, too many talks to count.

By staying calm during these moments and riding out the wave of big emotions, the child will eventually come back to shore and there you are waiting. (With a snack, these big emotions can make you hungry) Talk out loud about what you’re doing to stay calm. “Take a deep breath. In through my nose and out through my mouth. When I’m calm, I can think clearly.”

If you start saying this out loud as you problem solve or get frustrated, you’re modelling calming strategies. You want them to meet your calm not rise to their level of frustration. If they are met with a wall of sternness, does that feel like a soft, safe place to fall? It makes you want to run away or climb up, over and away! There begins the lovely habit of running from problems rather than asking for help from people you love and trust.

Here's a lovely article with a more specific definition of co-regulation and even more information:

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