When my son Joey was 15 years old, he began having major suicidal episodes and we discovered he had been already using substances for two years. At the time, co-regulation parenting was not part of my vocabulary, but I did go into Fix-It Mode and tried everything to help him feel better.
After a year of chasing Joey around with greater and greater levels of anxiety and dysfunction – for both of us – I got some help. I hired Heather Ross as my life coach, who taught me about co-regulating. I learned how important it was to put my oxygen mask on first, focus on my self-care, find ways to keep myself calm and quit trying to “fix” Joey.
Fast forward 4 years: Yesterday, my 19-year-old son Joey was having A Day. He was in despair; suicidal, hopeless and full of rage. His words went around and around in disorganized thought loops that didn’t make sense at all. He was in an emotional uproar, completely dysregulated.
Before I learned more effective co-regulating techniques, I would’ve tried to talk sense into him. “Of course there’s hope – there’s always hope!” or “You have your whole life ahead of you.” Doesn’t that sound like a loving mother?
But, not only would those exhortations have been ineffective, they might have even made things worse. Because Joey wasn’t asking for solutions. He wasn’t seeking parental guidance from me at that moment. He was irrational. His thinking brain was literally off-line.
So what did I do instead to help him when he was so dysregulated? I began using the co-regulation parenting techniques I’ve learned over the years.
First, I breathed—conscious, slow breaths. And you know what? He started to slow down his breath unconsciously. It was like magic!
Then, I just validated what he was saying. “You are feeling lost and confused! You are frustrated and scared because you don’t know what to do next. It’s all too big for you right now.” No arguing. No wise motherly counsel. Just validating. “I hear you. You are really hurting right now.”
Next, I fed him. He admitted that he hadn’t eaten all day, and it was 3:00 p.m. when this meltdown was occurring. Being “hangry” – hungry/angry – is a great way to become dysregulated! A few minutes after his first bite of his burger he was becoming more grounded.
A half-hour after his outburst began, he was much calmer, making plans to ride his bike, and admitting that his lack of food was a major contributor to his mood dysregulation.
Co-regulation parenting is a compassionate and effective way to help our loved ones when they are in pain and experiencing emotional chaos. Co-regulating is so simple, but it’s not easy to do. The alternative isn’t easy either! I much prefer the effectiveness of having enough mindfulness and self-control to just Be With my son when he’s in pain.
Beth Syverson is an adoptive mom to her 19-year-old son Joey. She is a Peer Parent at Other Parents Like Me, co-leading the weekly Adoptive Families meeting. She and Joey created the Unraveling Adoption podcast in August 2021, where they delve into adoption’s complexities in order to support people touched by adoption and educate the community. They are transforming the pain they’ve endured into helping other families who are struggling with adoption trauma, addiction and suicidality. Find out more about Beth and Joey’s advocacy work at UnravelingAdoption.com