Sometimes the biggest challenge parents have with their autistic children who have meltdowns is meeting the child emotionally and connecting. Here, we need to find the affect they’re having in that moment in order to help them feel they’re being heard and understood. Developmental, Individual differences, Relationship-based (DIR) Expert Training Leader, Kasheena Holder, joins us today to discuss this process of providing co-regulatory support for our children. Kasheena is a Special Education Teacher in Barbados and works with the International Council on Development and Learning’s DIR Home Program as a Floortime coach. She owns a local private practice in Barbados called First Step where she supports children with neurodiversities and their families.
Creating Opportunities for Co-Regulatory Support
- Co-regulation in Floortime: How to interact with a distressed child
- Co-regulation is the Driver for Sensory Integration (includes video & audio podcast)
- The New Co-Reg Community (includes video & audio podcast)
- What is attunement in a developmental approach?
- Stumbling blocks in Floortime at FEDC 1: Facilitating shared attention and regulation
- Slowing down and stretching out interactions
- Where is your focus?
- Intention in a Developmental Approach
- The Foundation for Regulation (includes video & audio podcast)
- Self-Regulation Starts With Us (includes audio podcast)
- How a caregiver’s regulation affects the child’s regulation (includes audio podcast)
- Constrictions in Developmental Capacities (includes video & audio podcast)
- Focusing on regulation (includes video & audio podcast)
- From Dysregulation to Intent (includes video & audio podcast)
- Regulation Challenges through the Developmental Capacities (includes video & audio podcast)
- Supporting the Development of Self-Regulation (includes video & audio podcast)
- Going Slower to Move Faster (includes video & audio podcast)
Checking in with Ourselves
When our children have meltdowns, we sometimes forget to look at the ‘why‘ behind the behaviour. Kasheena says the first step in looking at this dyad of the two of us is to check in with our own regulation. How are you feeling in this moment? How is this experience for you? Own that. It’s ok to feel frustrated and overwhelmed, uncertain and scared. Being reflective helps you to be open and available to the co-regulatory process. We always say to affirm and validate the emotion in our children, but we have to do the same for ourselves: This is hard. I’m really anxious here. This is a tough one. When you validate your own feelings, you are more empowered to activate your co-regulatory capacities, she says.
Being comfortable in and true to our own experience allows our brain to imagine what our child is experiencing. This is a start. Then you can jump in to support the other person in the Relationship, Kasheena explains. It’s the biggest hurdle for so many parents. When our child is having a meltdown, we need to find that affect they’re having in that moment so they can feel heard and understood. If they don’t feel heard and understood, what’s the point of listening to Mom or Dad? They don’t even get it! So us being aware of where we are in that process is really important.
Co-regulation is the ability to connect with the emotional state of another person, and through your emotional energy and well-being, to bring the emotional place where the other person is in to a nice, calm, available state. You’re calm, you’re feeling available and alert to your environment. You’re able to then use your emotional and affective state to support another person to come to that place. It’s not a process of you teaching or telling them how to do it. It’s really a process of feeling and you attuning to where they’re at, and through that emotionally signalling, it’s really connecting on a very visceral level, having that attunement and that shift to what they’re feeling internally.
A lot of times, Kasheena continues, not being conscious of how we’re feeling as the co-regulator, where our emotional state is at–whether consciously or unconsciously, then we’re not as effective as we think we’re going to be. It’s not intentional. We don’t intentionally say I’m going to just add more heightened emotions to this experience. But without being aware of that happening, then that process of being calming, joining, and attuning can be more challenging and take a little longer. This is the dynamic we’re thinking about when we think about co-regulatory support: using your capacity to support another person in becoming calm, Kasheena confirms.
Self-Regulation Starts with Co-Regulation
Self-regulation is the first Functional Emotional Developmental Capacity (FEDC) of the DIR Model and I’ve done a number of podcasts about regulation with Dr. Ira Glovinsky (here and here) and a couple with the Self-Reg.ca team (here and here) where we talked about how being able to have a regulated state where your nervous system is calm and you can attend to the world around you begins with having that experience of a primary caregiver co-regulating with you. Kasheena likes to think of it as a journey that can take multiple paths, which goes with the diversity in family dynamics.
Finding the Right Fit
Kasheena helps families she works with see what is unique to their own family dynamics in the DIR Model that can help them feel successful about it and apply the information in the moment. How do you feel in the moment? Do you run into the corner, scream, use verbal affirmations, internalize it in cognitive conversations with yourself? What applies to you, but at the same time, think about what is feasible for your child? What do they respond best to? Are they responsive to affect alone? Do they need affect along with tactile input? Does deep pressure help? Find these nuances through this co-regulatory journey that is useful in your own family journey. It’s trial and error. Something might work today, but not next time. You can find the right mix for different days and different types of experiences, Kasheena explains.
The essence of time is a big consideration too. We don’t have that pressure of how long it will take, thinking that we have a meeting in ten minutes. She is very aware of making sure she doesn’t put that pressure of time on parents when they bring their children to school. She wants to make sure they take all the time they need for the little one to feel safe and ready to come into class. She wants parents to feel held within the context of her classroom and the school so they’re not thinking, “Mrs. Holder really wants the children to be in class by 9:00!” No, Kasheena asserts, she really wants them to be in class feeling safe! Then they know they have that time to stay in the moment and connect and work through those feelings of safety, security, warmth and love that we often overlook.
We’re not aiming to get to school on time. We’re aiming to get to school feeling safe. This helps the day start better because we’re not racing against the clock.
When we think about becoming dysregulated, it’s the accumulation of experiences that have built up. If we can start with not accumulating these negative experiences, and can take each moment, as a family, moment-by-moment, enjoying it for its experience and starting each day in a better place, we are creating more and more opportunities for our sensory and emotional systems to work on that co-regulatory dance. It’s not waiting until we are dysregulated, but now our energies are intertwining when we’re both in a good place, which supports the foundation of how we respond to each other when we are not in our best space.
By building this collection of moments of connecting when things are good, we can prevent some of the meltdowns when things are bad. And in the moment, checking in with our own emotional state, as Kasheena started off with, is important to do. Parents often feel self-conscious, anxious, angry, impatient, and/or embarrassed that their child is the only one not going in to school while the teacher is waiting for them. And that is ok. Some parents have a hard time looking at their own emotional state and seeing how they can be contributing to their child’s emotional state, which can have to do with how they were treated as a child and whether they were nurtured or not.
Kasheena explains that it’s also important to have that supportive person there during those tough moments when parents are feeling stressed. Kasheena will ask parents in that moment how they’re feeling. They might say they’re fine, but she’ll comment that they are sweating, or looking tense. That permission to feel stressed releases some pressure and allows them to label a feeling they have, which is not the cultural norm, she adds. Naming that surface emotion is the first step, she says, and you don’t need to get very deep. It gives your brain permission to say, “A-ha! You’re hearing me“. This simplicity is enough for you to become more available.
Kasheena will see the adult not affirming their own feelings in the process as a signal blocker. You want to send the signals of, “You can do this. I’m here with you.” If we can’t do this for ourselves, it will be harder to signal this to our little ones more efficiently, she explains. If we’re not available and are angry and impatient, our children pick up on that, I added. We want to be able to mirror what we see in our children and parents are more or less comfortable doing this, based on our own individual differences.
Helping them acknowledge that they’re stressed might relax them enough to help support their child. In those moments of heightened experiences, you’re not really hearing any words, Kasheena adds. What’s doing the calming and support is the emotion you’re feeling. We pick up on emotional signals very strongly. We can read the emotional energy of a room with little actions.
It’s really about projecting your emotional energy with intensity, or with intent. It’s not a lot of what have I done and what have I said and how have I said it, but did my emotions project, and how were they received? That’s the connectivity and attunement that we’re thinking of and looking for when we’re using this framework of DIR and Floortime.
Imagining the Child’s Perspective
Children vary so much on what kind of co-regulation they can accept, so Kasheena really has to test her own theory. Some may be aversive to touch, words, or close proximity. Can she project across the room the experience of, “You are in a safe space, I am here, you’re being held and understood” without words so they get what they need from her to feel calm and supported to feel safe? It is about a quest for safety because what kids are feeling in that moment is that they are not safe and don’t know what to do with their body. They are not comfortable with what’s happening and not sure what’s going to happen next. Kasheena always thinks, “I wonder how you would feel if...” as a launch pad to put parents in their child’s shoes and start to understand their perspective.
We’re always moving so quickly, Kasheena says, that we don’t take the time to see the child’s perspective. Holding the experience that we feel and what our child feels, we can support ‘us’ in our relationship to all be more regulated day-to-day from interaction-to-interaction. It makes me giggle, I added, when reading comments from self-advocates about how it’s the neurotypical people who don’t have ‘theory of mind‘, or the ability to take another’s perspective. Our kids can feel the emotional energy even if they can’t convey it to us in a way we recognize. They struggle in the relationship with us because they don’t feel understood.
Parent reflection is about wanting to wonder what it is that’s making our child feel unsafe in this moment. It’s not that they can’t. It’s that we have to accommodate what their needs are, so they can be empowered to feel safe. Kasheena says for parents it might take some unpacking to figure this out. It might require knowledge and intuition, along with someone to help you unpack it. Kasheena urges parents to listen to their instincts. Your gut usually gives you the right move to make in this moment.
Kasheena will ask parents to reflect on what they could have done differently, then wonder if they would want to try that tomorrow. She’ll then ask which day worked better for them and which day helped them feel calmer, or which day made them have more productivity at work. Then she’ll have them wonder how the child’s day at school was that day. It allows them to see how these opportunities to connect, attune, and support co-regulation really is a driving force for self-regulation beyond that moment.
It is a process though, and some parents don’t feel they have the tools and they do need support to get the ball rolling.
Parents do have this intrinsically, but we might shut it down when we weigh our instincts against what we’ve been socialized to think or do. Or, I add, we might just be stressed and having a bad day and later need to do that rupture and repair process by explaining how you were having a bad day earlier.
It gives parents permission not to carry guilt, Kasheena says. Rupture and repair is an experience in all relationships. As parents it’s part of the process as well. It’s taking advantage of an opportunity to co-regulate when you come back later and say, “Mommy yelled. I’m sorry. I was stressed and tired. How did you feel when I did that?” Kasheena says she apologizes to her child all the time. It also helps to build a more intense and in depth relationship as well between each other.
The Accumulation of Experiences
I wanted to bring Kasheena back to the accumulation of experiences. I explained how our patience wanes if we get cut off in traffic, get stopped at every red light, or it starts raining on our drive home and we come home to our child’s meltdown. Similarly, our child might accumulate negative experiences at school all day with a teacher. By tempering that with the accumulation of positive experiences where we are commenting on what our child is experiencing, experiencing it with them, sharing joy together, and tuning in to their emotional state is what Dr. Kathy Platzman has said ‘puts pennies in the bank’ so that when you have those negative experiences, the trust has built up and they can weather the stress better with your support.
Normalizing, Permission, and Just ‘Being’
Kasheena says that these pennies in the bank can mitigate a lot of the intensity. Overload and overwhelm can be less intense in the right envionment with the right relationship. Kasheena gave the example of his son’s sensory experience being overloaded by school so that by the time he gets home, he has no more spoons left. Kasheena’s work, too, also takes up most of her spoons. So when they meet each other after school and work, she’ll ask him how his body is feeling, seeing that his affect is not matching his words when he says he’s fine. She can see by the cues in his body that he is overloaded.
They’ll engage about their overload. “Today was a hard day. I’m so tired, my head hurts. I don’t feel like talking so I’ll just grunt!” These are the types of engagement and conversation she has with him to affirm his state, rather than adding more expectations on both of them. It’s taking a moment for both of them to recover. This does at least three very important things for the child. First, it normalizes the experience. This is what people do. This is what happens to my parent, too, not just to me. And our kids pick up on the affect in what we say so if we’re expressing how our head hurts with affect, you’ll likely find they pick up on this and imitate this.
Second, it gives them permission to feel it as well. And third, you are just experiencing life with them, together. This is part of the accumulation of shared positive experiences together that cushion the falls. Our kids learn that they can be themselves and share what they’re feeling and experiencing with us and that it’s ok not to feel ok.
Reading Each Other’s Energy
Kasheena says it’s ok to be a human first. As a parent we often put ourselves on a pedestal of having to be the proper parent. It’s not intentional, but we’re often not sure how to do that in the context of being a parent and nurturing this child along. Kasheena finds that her son connects with her more when she is her authentic self. She’s building that relationship in a way that shows her son how to reach himself as well to eventually communicate where he is at.
When Kasheena talks about communication she is not thinking about words. She’s looking at what his body and face are telling her. This way, when they aren’t in a good place, they can be better signallers to each other and her child can read her energy and she can read his more efficiently. This is a gift she wants to give to as many parents as she can. We also touched on the point again that if this doesn’t work for your child, specifically, you need to modify what you do to their individual differences so it works for your relationship with each other.
When One Parent isn’t a Floortimer
I asked Kasheena what she thinks one parent being a real Floortimer, but the other not being on board. She said that the world has many different types of people and our children will grow up with many different types of relationships. What we can do is provide a relationship that gives our children what they need when they need it. They know where they can get what they need. This can avoid some of the tension and tug. Each partner will have strengths.
If you take some of this away from yourself, it helps you be more available to nurture this place that they can come to for this specific type of support, because there will be other things I cannot offer that they can go to another relationship for, and that’s ok. This will support them being strong and flexible in other relationships. Sometimes a struggle added to a struggle may not always be the healthiest for the environment as a whole. Also, if everyone’s always nurturing to the child and then suddenly someone is not, they could be traumatized by that.
I gave Kasheena another scenario of when a parent maybe snaps at the child because they are grumpy from not having had their morning coffee yet, for instance. I said how I might say to my child, “Oh, Dada was grumpy this morning. He didn’t have his coffee yet.” This normalizes the situation and lets the child know it’s not about them. I will then say something like, “You know how we get really grumpy when we’re hungry? Dada gets like that when he doesn’t have his coffee“. Kasheena says this is about meaning making. It then allows the child to take that next step beyond being emotionally triggered and asking Dad if he needs a coffee.
Helping a Child Through a Transition
I asked Kasheena about the incident that was brought up in our parent support group where a child was having trouble transitioning to school because their teacher had changed. What Kasheena told the group was so helpful. She said to shed the expectation about ‘this is a task’ (getting into school), and instead connect with the emotional meaning of the experience where you tap in to their emotional selves so we can feel another person’s warmth or sorrow even though they didn’t say, “I am sad“. Kasheena says her heart really opens up to the experiences of parents and she was feeling how a parent may have felt going through that experience.
Even if frustration, embarrassement, and feeling lost is at the surface of what a parent is experiencing in that moment, Kasheena explains, deep down they’re feeling this sorrow and sense of loss for what is happening. When we are in those moments with our children we forget that our children are wondering where their relationship went with that teacher and why that teacher isn’t in that building anymore. Having somebody to join in that knowing of losing the teacher who understands them and makes them feel safe, and allowing that feeling can be lost because of the external things we have to do and put on our kids.
I really want them to understand that it’s that emotional availability that supports the little one. Nothing else. Very little else. It’s that emotional availability of you as a person, then as a parent, that really is what can create so many shifts. And it’s the time to be able to do that…to have the feeling that you have the time to be able to do that.
Staying in the Moment
Kasheena makes an effort to work on that. Dig past the surface feelings until you get to the raw emotions. It’s hard for everybody, especially if there are siblings waiting impatiently, but just acknowledge that this is where we’re at today and this is ok. Even though one person is presenting as being overwhelmed and dysregulated, everyone there has been in that experience for the duration, so everyone can connect and calm down together, then move on. It’s about exaggerating the experience, slowing down the sitting in that feeling that leads to the elongation of the emotional experience so they feel it. It’s sitting in that state of discomfort, like stretching that rubber band, which is where the growth happens. The taking the time of sitting in the feeling leads to the elongating.
We’re uncomfortable staying in those hard cases. Without being conscious about it, we are transferring that discomfort to the little ones, making them jump over feeling sad, and jumping over feeling frustrated, rather than experiencing it with them. Us experiencing it with them, gives them greater meaning and feeling safe in an emotional state that might not feel very known. As a child they may not have all of the cognitive pieces to feel that emotion. So having someone safe there supporting them, allows them to feel safe in that moment.
And the more you give the child the opportunity for those experiences, then the more they will have the opportunity to feel comfortable in them and this leads to them being able to generalize to other environments and situations. People think sometimes that indulging their feelings will make them act out more, but actually if you indulge them, it helps them begin to understand their emotions better and be able to know in what contexts they’re appropriate to display. Our kids learn this anyway. We allow them to feel so they can learn and understand how to self-regulate.
Processing emotions is a journey and a progression, and the start is sitting in that emotion in each moment, because you can’t make modifications to something that you don’t know. As the child’s co-regulator, we are having those experiences with them in different settings so they’re starting to make the modifications and they’re getting feedback about when they feel safe to understand what’s happening with them and how they move through it–not past it.
This week’s PRACTICE TIP:
This week let’s think about checking in with ourselves when our child is dysregulated. Are we also feeling dysregulated?
For example: Allow yourself to name, in your head, or out loud, what you are feeling in the moment: I’m stressed. I’m angry. I’m frustrated. I feel rushed. Recognizing your own experience in that moment will open up your availability to your child’s emotional experience in that moment.
Thank you to Kasheena for sharing these helpful insights and tips about creating opportunities for our children to feel and how we can co-regulate their emotions with them in order to foster their capacity to self-regulate. I hope that you learned something valuable and will share it on Facebook or Twitter and feel free to share relevant experiences, questions, or comments in the Comments section below. Stay tuned for the next podcast in two weeks.
Until next week, here’s to choosing play and experiencing joy everyday!