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FAKE vs REAL: Self-Regulation Skills

Updated: Jun 7

A 2 panel cartoon by Autball.  1: A white box at the top reads: FAKE SELF-REGULATION. A red adult, speaking to a Green adult, says, “We have many different ways of helping them learn to suppress their distress behav- <ahem> I mean, ‘self-regulate.’ There are lots of coping skills we can talk AT them about, we can ignore or punish their outbursts and give rewards when they use a skill, and even seclusion and restraint can teach self-regulation when used properly!” Behind them are a poster that asks, “What’s Your Zone?,” a poster with four breathing exercises, and a door with a small window that bolts shut from the outside labeled “Calm Down Room.”  2: A white box at the top reads: REAL SELF-REGULATION. A Light Blue/Blue adult sits with a Green/Yellow child on a couch and says, “Self-regulation develops naturally out of safe co-regulation with a trusted adult. I’ll model regulation skills myself when I’m dysregulated, and I’ll be there to validate and guide you through your big feelings and hard times, so you can learn through experience how to safely navigate all that stuff.”

Self-regulation skills for kids are all the rage right now, and there are lots of people who will tell you that they have just the program for that. Which sounds awesome, right? Self-regulation is great! Who wouldn’t want that for their kid who is just so upset all the time?

The problem is that these people think self-regulation is just a set of skills you can teach someone. Or even better, that if you ignore a person in distress long enough, they’ll magically come up with those skills on their own. (Like, what even is that logic? Oh right, it’s the same thinking that makes people believe the Cry It Out method for babies is a good idea.)

But that’s not how that works. Self-regulation skills come from safe co-regulation, and the learning begins in infancy. Then it takes YEARS of more co-regulation and brain development to get to a place where a person can even start to recognize the need for and use those skills of their own volition.

Oh, and they also have to have enough time NOT in distress to even know what it feels like to feel safe and regulated in the first place. They need room to develop said self-regulation skills. You can’t just keep a kid in a pressure cooker all the time and expect them to learn how to “regulate” through it (which is exactly what many people are doing to the autistic and ADHD kids they put through these programs).

When you try to teach self-regulation skills to a stressed out, traumatized child without doing ANYTHING to make their environment safer and less demanding, or doing ANYTHING to make yourself a safe co-regulator, the most you can hope for is that your child gets good at acting calm and performing regulation skills (and that’s if it doesn’t just backfire completely). But the inner turmoil is still there, and they still have no idea how to deal with it.

And kids who are left alone in their distress don’t “develop skills.” At least not any healthy ones. They just keep crying or lashing out until they can’t anymore, and they learn that no one cares to help them in their darkest moments. If you do it long enough, you might even push them into shutdown or fawn mode, which is super convenient for the adults, but devastating for the child.

For the record, breathing exercises are not inherently bad. Neither is learning to recognize body sensations or what “zone” you’re in or any of the other things that can help with self-awareness (as long as we’re not sending the message that certain feelings are “good” or “bad”). It’s just that those things don’t work for everyone, and they’re not a substitute for safety and co-regulation.

Kids need safe adults, and they need to be around them more for than just an hour or two a week in therapy session. It’s the caregivers who need to learn co-regulation skills, not the children who need to learn self-regulation skills. It’s the adults who need to de-stress the child’s life, not the child who needs to learn how to handle overwhelming amounts of stress better. And it’s the adult’s job to nurture self-regulation, not a child’s job to try and figure it out on their own.

(There’s even more to self-regulation than this, of course, like the sensory processing element and the fact that being regulated is not just about being “calm,” and I touch more on those in my post about Frustration Tolerance.)

I learned most of what I know about how children develop self-regulation through co-regulation from Mona Delahooke, and I highly recommend her work if you want to learn more about it. Links to her and other resources below.

P.S. Did you know you can co-regulate with animals, too, or even a tree?! They might not be the greatest at modeling skills or validating your feelings, but they can still contribute to felt safety.

This is part 2 of a 5 part "FAKE vs REAL" series about the ways harmful practices are being made to sound more appealing through the co-opting of language and how to spot the differences between helpful and harmful approaches.

Part 1 on Neuro-Affirming Practice here

Part 3 on Frustration Tolerance here

Part 4 on Sensory Desensitization here

Part 5 on Communication Support here



The Co-Regulation Handbook

Resources on co-regulation in neurodivergent households.

On teaching regulation skills without addressing the environment.

Yes, some people really say that about restraint.

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