What is co-regulation?

You might have heard that kids “co-regulate” off the adults in their lives. But what does it mean? And why is it so important?

Our children’s nervous system is wired to automatically pick up on the body language, tone of voice, and facial expression, that accompany our autonomic states, and to detect whether the environment is safe or dangerous.

🟢 When we are feeling safe and grounded, the nerve complex responsible for Social Engagement is switched on. This gives our child a “green light”, a signal that all is safe and well in their environment, and that we are right there with them.

This is co-regulation.

🟡 But if our nervous system detects a threat, and we are either hyper-aroused (“Fight or Flight”, e.g. stressed, anxious, angry) or hypo-aroused (“Shut Down”, e.g. withdrawn, depressed), we give our child a signal that there is danger in their environment.

It also sends a message that we don’t have the capacity to care for/protect them right now, as our resources are focussed on defending ourselves from a perceived threat. And that can be really scary for a child too.

Co-regulation 3 slides (1)
Image courtesy of prostooleh / Freepik

As a result, our child’s nervous system will likely go into (or stay in, if they are already there) Fight or Flight, ready to protect themselves from the perceived threat. And their Social Engagement system will go offline. And if it becomes overwhelming for them, they will go into Shut Down.

An adult must be feeling safe in their own body in order to be able to co-regulate the child back (up or down), bringing the Social Engagement branch of the child’s nervous system back online.

It is through multiple experiences of co-regulation, of having a Socially Engaged adult supporting a child back to their own felt sense of safety, that they develop the capacity to effectively regulate their own nervous system.

That is, co-regulation supports the development of self-regulation, by strengthening a child’s ability to return to a Socially Engaged state themselves, after a perceived threat has passed.

And that’s one reason that it’s so important! 💖

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