What is co-regulation?
Co-regulation is a dynamic process in which carers and children work together to manage emotions, navigate challenges, and build emotional resilience together.
As caregivers we play a huge role in helping our children manage their emotions. When children are upset or overwhelmed, they look to us for help to regulate.
This powerful approach goes beyond traditional disciplinary methods, focusing rather on connection, empathy, modelling and understanding. In co-regulation, caregivers play a central role in guiding children through their emotional experiences. This approach helps children learn how to identify and cope with their emotions in healthier, safer and more productive ways.
Co-regulation is not about temporarily calming a child down, but it’s the process through which a child develops and learns the ability to self-regulate themselves in the long term (and literally wires the self-regulation pathways in the brain).
A critical factor in this process of learning how to regulate is the presence of a reliable caregiver. The caregiver acts as a ‘second brain’ — an extra calming centre that supports the child when they cannot regulate. Successful co-regulation relies on the carer’s capacity to self-regulate themselves while responding to a highly stressed child who is upset, angry or violent, or has shut down completely.
Emotions are contagious: it is vital for a parent to actively calm themselves before they engage to de-escalate a child.
Safety is a key requirement in achieving positive co-regulation. A highly stressed child is a child whose fight-flight-freeze system is on high alert has to be able to switch that alarm off – and to do that their brain needs to sense safety.
Carers reminded us that often our capacity to co-regulate with our children is especially challenging when we ourselves are struggling to regulate. In these situations, carers need to develop skills in calming themselves so that they can help their children learn to calm themselves.
Co-regulation starts with regulating your own feelings first and then approaching your child in a calm and understanding manner.
- Remember that this meltdown is not about you. Don’t take a child’s meltdown personally. Remind yourself the child is struggling right now, and they need you to stay calm. Staying calm is the quickest way to quiet a child’s anxiety.
- Remind yourself these are your child’s emotions, not yours. One of the ways to do this is to become curious about why they’re in meltdown. It’s much easier to become defensive, but instead, slow down your reaction and think “Wow, this kid is triggered, why is that?”. Think about the Iceberg Model: the ‘tip of the iceberg’ includes those behaviours we can see children and young people engage in, while ‘underneath the surface’ of the water are the emotional or environmental causes of the behaviours. To be able to better understand what is driving the meltdown, focus on what could be happening under the surface for the child. If you see the behaviour as the tip of the iceberg and focus on what’s happening under the surface, you’ll be less likely to view the behaviour as a personal attack.
- Take a deep breath and keep your voice level low. Speak slowly, in short sentences and in a calm voice.
- Tell others what you need them to do. It is important that you as the parent or carer handle the situation assertively and appropriately. However, if the meltdown happens in public or among friends and family, you may need to tell others what you need them to do. For instance, if it happens in a supermarket, let people know that your child has autism and that you need some space to help them calm down. If dangerous objects are nearby that your child could hurt themselves with, ask someone to remove them for you. If the meltdown is likely to cause harm to other children at home, calmly ask those children to leave the room.
- If you are at a loss as to what to do when a child is having a meltdown, step back and stay calm. As the saying goes “Don’t just do something, stand there”- in other words, first “do no harm.” Perhaps at that point model your own “self-calming” by doing a breathing exercise. Breathe in slowly over five seconds and exhale slowly over the next five seconds. Use the second hand on your watch and get absorbed in taking deep belly breaths. As you become focused on your own self-calming skills, the child may decide to join in. The other advantages of an explicit focus on self-control is that you’re serving as a role model and the focus directs you away from being coercive with your child.
- Be solid and safe. Maintain safety and predictability as the adult in the room.
As you are your child’s greatest role model, it is essential that your own ability to self-regulate is established. Because we are human, dysregulation will occur from time to time. Don’t dwell on the times you were not able to self-regulate and co-regulate – just keep working on it. You can do it!