It is a commonly asked question when in a co-parenting situation – how do I help my child regulate after contact? Whether your relationship with your child’s other parent is positive, negative or neutral; at various points your child may go through phases of being completely dysregulated on their return from contact. This may show up in their behaviour being more emotional, more aggressive or more introverted (Fight / Flight / Freeze response). Assuming there are no safeguarding concerns being raised, here is my advice that can support when you are looking for help with how to regulate your child after contact.
How do I help my child regulate after contact? Get back to routine
Familiarity and routine really help. It calms our nervous system as the brain doesn’t have to work so hard to know what to expect or what to be aware of. Our brains are amazing but it will always take the path of least resistance aka the neural pathway that is the easiest.
Some ideas of how you can keep familiarity for the day the main parent changes or after contact are:
- Serve the same meal. Ideally a preferred meal. This could be home cooked, a snack stop on the way home or a restaurant.
- Watching the same show or film. Something that is considered a comfort and is not a surprise. If you have a Netflix or Disney + subscription make it a comfort show you like to watch together.
- Drive the same way home. Keep to the same route so landmarks feel comforting and you know what is coming up next.
- A familiar audio book / playlist is another way of adding a routine into the collection.
- Having a phrase you always say when you see them. This should be positive and one they like. It could be as simple as saying ‘There she is, my xxx’ or ‘Hey champ, let’s get this show on the road’ or ‘Hi lovely, it’s good to see you’. If something like this won’t be welcomed in front of the other parent, then have a phrase for the car.
- Have a blanket / teddy / hoodie that is smelling of you and home and have that in the car. Smells are evocative to our brains and will help make the transition to the known and will calm our brains.
- Have an activity that doesn’t require active compliance that is easy and ready to go. It has to be something that is easy to start and doesn’t take any effort to agree to. A passive compliance activity would be the TV show option or listening to music.
How do I help my child regulate after contact? Make transitions as easy as possible
Understand that Transitions are a ‘Trigger Time’ so give allowances and answer the presenting emotion with compassion. Other Trigger Times are Thirst, Tummy, Toilet and Tiredness. If possible avoid key points of the day that are likely to combine more than one Trigger Time. If it is unavoidable due to schedules or court orders, then try to address the other triggers: organise a snack and a drink to be ready and prepared; stop somewhere for the toilet or suggest going before they jump in the car. If tiredness is likely to be at play, keep the transition as calm as possible for the evening. That may be by forgoing some part of the evening routine. The caveat to that is, nothing that is a comfort. So fine to skip an evening bath if it’s usually contentious but not if it’s one of the connecting times you enjoy together. If you have a positive co-parenting relationship, planning to mitigate some of the additional triggers to aid the transition would be ideal. That may mean already being in pjs, being showered ready, or simply being encouraged to pop to the loo before you knock the door.
How do I help my child regulate after contact? Think of your own behaviour
How you present will have an impact on your child. So get to know your own responses to stress and get yourself into a calm and regulated state before you see them. Being the most regulated adult in the same space as your child/ren is a massive positive for them, and everyone else. Doing 5 slow deep breaths before you walk to greet them will help your nervous system calm and know you’re safe. This helps your child’s nervous system to feel the same.
It will go against all your natural instincts as a parent, but don’t ask direct questions about their time away from you. Allow them to decompress and start a conversation when they’ve acclimatised. Of course you want to chat to them, but lots of questions, and in some instances ANY questions, can feel overwhelming. Make the connection with your child by telling them about your day. Saying something like ‘I was thinking of you earlier when … because I know you like …’. This lets them know they are in your thoughts when they are not with you, connects you to them as you are showing you know their preferences, and is a gentle conversation starter as they don’t need to respond if they choose not to.
How do I help my child regulate after contact? Create a Toolkit
Understanding your child’s emotions are valid and expected in this period between homes or contact is one thing; knowing the best way to calm their nervous system elevates how in control you feel. Spoiler alert – when you feel more in control, you feel calmer and more regulated yourself and this helps you help your child EVEN more. So have a toolkit of things to try that are proven to calm the vagus nerve and make it tell the brain that all is calm and all is safe. While all these things do work, different things have a bigger impact on each individual.
- Humming and singing – they stimulate the vagus nerve. So a playlist that is full on ballads or rock music for those that love to move. Calmer songs may be preferred by some and as long as you’re humming or singing, you’re winning! Again, you can make this one of your routines on the drive home.
- Deep breathing – I couldn’t not include the one that absolutely, categorically works. Please remember though we can’t learn anything new when we’re dysregulated so this one HAS to be practised when calm and made to feel totally normal.
- Affirmation for the home – This one could just as easily sit in the familiar routines camp, but I’ve popped it into the toolkit section as I think it should be used daily. Have a home mantra or affirmation. One YOU say whenever you enter the home. Your child will soon pick up on it and it will get absorbed by their brain. ‘I am home, I am safe’ or ‘All who live here are loved unconditionally’. Make it something you can remember, and that has meaning to you. This isn’t to be a live love laugh type mantra, this has to be personal. What is it you need your home to be?
- Dance like no-one is watching – Silly dancing makes you laugh which calms the nervous system and frantic dancing is a form of exercise and allows the cortisol to be used for good. After a period of fight or flight, using up the energy / cortisol that has been generated in a positive way, allows the body to process that the ‘danger’ has past. Double this one up with your playlist and you have a positive tool kit on turbo power!
- Pressure – No, not the asking a million questions kind but physical pressure on the body. Each child will have preferences for how much pressure, but it can range from simple stroking of the arms or back or scratching your nails through their hair. Which is an easy one to do while watching TV, creating another stacking of your toolkit. Others will like really firm pressure. This could be a weighted blanket to chill out with or even you! Bear hugs and releasing them and pretending to catch them again can work. The one my son loves though is me pretending I can’t see him on the bed / sofa and diving on him and being a dead weight saying ‘ah this is so comfy’. We use humour a lot and this is one way of combining the two!
- Playfulness – laughter is a fabulous tool to calm the nervous system, so if you can get in with the laughter before emotions escalate, then do it.
- Name emotions – Dan Siegel (Professor of Psychiatry) says ‘name it to tame it’. Create an emotional literacy and help your child to notice what their body is doing and how they are feeling. Naming emotions is powerful as it reduces the power the emotions have when they remain unnamed; and linking it to how their body is demonstrating the emotion helps them to notice it for themselves in the future. It can be as simple as ‘You look quite tense, are you feeling agitated?’ or ‘That’s a big sigh, are you feeling sad?’.
If your child is feeling big emotions it is really tough on you ,and as much as you may respond with compassion and logically understand the reasons; it can still impact your wellbeing so don’t forget to do all the toolkit ideas on yourself as well.
How do I help my child regulate after contact?
It can be a really unsettling time when you are finding a new normal or if there have been changes to a co-parenting contact schedule. Make sure you practice self love and kindness as well as using the tool kit above, as no parent is perfect, and mistakes will happen.
Need more support with your parenting journey and managing co-parenting situations? Get in touch and let’s chat