In The Heat of the Moment: Am I Co-regulating or Co-escalating?

Updated: Sep 25

Years ago, when I was a viewpoint columnist for Today’s Parent magazine, I wrote a column that said something like this. Eureka! I have found it! “The secret to being a good parent is— ta da!—being in a good mood.”


I was being a bit flip, but I was mostly serious. I observed that I did all aspects of parenting—patience, connection, comforting, understanding, explaining, problem-solving, putting out fires—fairly well when I was in a good mood. When I was in a bad mood, not so much. Unfortunately, back then I wasn’t able to tell my readers the key to being in a good mood as a parent, other than a vague “this is why we need to look after ourselves.”

Now, thanks to Self-Reg, I have something more substantive to say. Let’s start with this. The single biggest “aha” for people who take our Foundations course is that they go in hoping to learn better ways to work with kids, but the first thing they learn is recognize and address their own stress. And they find that doing that has positive impacts on their work and/or parenting with children. In other words, they learn strategies to help themselves be in what I simplistically called a “better mood” more often. That enables them to best use their energy, skills and personal resources in connecting with, understanding, teaching and helping kids.

I want to touch on one specific piece of this being in a better mood thing, which is captured by a great little Self-Reg question we can ask ourselves when we’re trying to navigation a hot situation with an upset child (or adult): “Am I co-regulating or co-escalating?

I think we’d all agree that when kids are upset or agitated, the best first step is to co-regulate: speak and act in ways that help them come back to calm. But often we co-escalate. Usually we don’t set out to do that. Maybe we’re trying to put a stop to a behaviour right away. But our stern command doesn’t produce the compliance we hoped would defuse the situation. Sometimes that command, or even a less coercive suggestion or direction sends the child further into red brain. That feels like defiance. Limbic resonance sets in (and not the good kind!) We react. Perhaps the child’s anxiety makes us anxious. So we try so hard to reassure the child that it feels like pressure to them. That further fuels their anxiety, which fuels our anxiety and so on. I could go on. But the point is, it’s not hard for our intervention attempts to backfire, creating a situation where we are feeding each other’s agitation and upset, when what we really need and want to do is the opposite—to co-regulate, to “lend our calm.”


In order to lend our calm, we have to be calm—not just our words, but also our body, our face, our tone of voice. So the question, "am I co-regulating or co-escalating?" is a good one to ask. First of all, when we’re co-escalating—and we all do it—it’s not easy to just flip the switch back to co-regulation mode.


Number two, when we’re trying to do something and our efforts aren’t working, the default response is to try harder. That’s not the right thing to do when we’re slipping into co-escalation. The first step is just to stop. Stop trying to teach a lesson (that can come later). Stop trying to explain (if we’re co-escalating our explanation won’t get though anyway). Asking “the question” helps us take that pause. Whatever it is we feel we have to get done or a cognitive level, it can usually wait. And we’ll do it better if we restore—reduce our tension and refuel our energy reserves so we can get back into a state, ahem, “a better mood,” so we are able to co-regulate.


This co-escalation vs. co-regulation question may be particularly relevant this fall, as children return to school amid all the uncertainty and anxiety of trying to re-school safely in a pandemic. Children may be anxious about their safety at school, or all the new procedures, or restrictions on social activity. (Adults may be even more anxious!). One thing we don’t want to do is make those negative emotions worse. So there will be more an ongoing need for co-regulation—with kids, colleagues, between educators and parents, between partners and within school communities as a whole.


The coming school year will be challenging. Asking our little question, "am I co- regulating or co-escalating?", can help us stay on track so we can do our part in creating the calm, regulated, supportive communities we need.

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