Helping teens manage big feelings with co-regulation

My 15-yr old daughter barged into the room fuming and stormed out with her phone charger. And then the sound of her room door slamming shut! Something was up! She was clearly upset. When my daughter is having big feelings, some days she needs her space and on some days the support is nice for her - it helps for me to read the cues right - or we end up with a situation that leaves us both feeling misunderstood and disconnected.

I walked up to her door and knocked softly.
Me: Hey! Can I talk to you for a minute?
Daughter: No. Not right now. (in a frustrated tone)
Me: Ok. I’ll be back in a bit
Daughter: (Silence)

I circled back in about 15 min.
Me: Hey, all good?
Daughter: Mmm.
Me: Can I come in so we can talk?
Daughter: I don't want to talk. (a calmer tone)
Me: Ok. If you do feel like it, I’ll be at my desk. Do you need anything right now? Can I get you a glass of water?
Daughter: No.

Two different scenarios that have played out from here -

Scenario 1:
Just as I was about to walk away, I heard a sniffle. And then the door softly unlocked. I opened the door and went in. She burst into tears and collapsed on the bed. I sat down next to her, sensing her overwhelm for a moment and felt it would be ok to soothe her back. She flinched. I pulled my hand away and just sat. With her. Quietly. Listening. Being present. Breathing deep. Ready to engage with her when she wanted to.

Scenario 2:
She came out of her room later and was playing a video game on the sofa. I let her be for about 15 min then joined her in the same room with a book and some popcorn. I didn’t try to engage - just put up the snack between us and started to read my book.

In some time, she reached out instinctively for the popcorn. In some more time when she seemed calmer…
Me: You good? (light, casual tone. Not questioning or intrusive)
Daughter : Mm...yeah (in a lighter tone of voice)
Me: (sitting there some more)

In either of the above situations, I have observed that often, my being there, quietly holding the space for her, is all she needs to start to feel calmer and ready to share, and from there move on to finding solutions that work for her. Though the sharing is mostly listening, on my part, I sometimes ask open-ended questions to gently nudge her along-
Me: So how are you thinking of handling this?
And then we might talk about it.
Me: Can I make a suggestion?
And then genuinely go along with her “yes” or “not really!”

The core points in this interaction are that -

There is space and freedom at home that allows for emotional expression with safety. My saying, “Hey! It's normal to feel that way. You can cry. I am here”, goes a long way in creating a relationship that is warm and inviting for my child to feel secure and approach me with her thoughts and feelings.

I am quiet, calm, and regulated. Mindful of my tone of voice, relaxed in my body language and inviting in my presence, I am likely to come across to my daughter as open and receptive to engaging with her, rather than coming from a critical or judgemental space that might shut her down.

This is not about me - I am not taking her behaviour and responses personally and feeling rejected by her. I am engaging from a non-judgemental space, actively listening to truly understand the root cause of her upset, to help her work through her experience.

When she does open up more, it helps for me to not jump in with ideas and solutions trying to ‘fix’ anything for her. Nodding my head, saying ‘yes’ or simply ‘mm-hm’ is often enough to encourage her to engage, as I actively listen to truly empathise with her experience. It has been vital in these times for me to hold myself in check and remember that these are opportunities for me to work with her to help her figure ‘her’ way forward.

Four invaluable lessons I have learnt with my teens over the years -

I am not required to fix/ solve/ offer solutions - Easing their feelings is tempting, but that is not what they need. What they need is for someone to be there for them - NOT to try to fix them, or their problem, or to tell them what to do to feel better. Just to be there in genuine non-judgemental engagement and presence to help them work through their intense feelings.

I dishonour and further dysregulate my child when I minimize their difficult experience by saying things like -
Calm down, you are fine.
You have nothing to be anxious about.
Get some sleep; you will feel better in the morning,

They are learning to manage their thoughts, feelings and behaviours - they are learning to self-regulate. It is a process that will develop over an extended period of time through their young adulthood. Challenging life events and adverse circumstances (at present, the pandemic), all too easily disrupt self-regulation.

Science shows that when in acute distress, it is difficult to think rationally or problem solve, because the brain experiences a chemical rush that causes a type of neurochemical ‘chaos’. In such times, caring adults and a supportive self-regulation environment become key factors for support. This support is co-regulation.

Co-regulation occurs when someone else helps us to self-regulate. It is a fascinating process between two people, where one nervous system soothes another and creates a cycle. Co-regulation starts from infancy, so our children's nervous systems are very much dialled into our nervous systems from birth!

If I, as a parent, lose control easily, I in turn fuel my child who is dysregulated. An angry, upset child having a parent yell and threaten them are two individuals who are dysregulated and not going to be able to help each other.

If however, my nervous system is in a calm and regulated state, their nervous systems are able to pick up on that like a radar, and start to co-regulate with mine - even if at the time they are involved in another activity - just being in the same space together! That is how powerful co-regulation can be! Over time, as they learn to do this for themselves, they develop long-term emotional intelligence and stability.

As humans, we all have the same experiences and the same desires - to feel a deep-rooted human connection with others of our kind. Teenagers are yearning for the same connection. Hence it is important to recognize that co-regulation is not a solution-finding or problem-solving exercise.

It might be of solace to note that the ‘fixing’ that we seek as parents, happens naturally and beautifully through co-regulation. The solution occurs by us being there to truly see, feel, hear and understand our child. That is what will give our teenagers a healthy ability to regulate their emotions, work through their challenges and move forward in life in a positive way as confident and emotionally intelligent people.

Meet the Author 

Sushmita Parakh Ramakrishnan is a team member of Parenting Matters, an organization which empowers parents to build deeper connections in families.

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