Co- regulation: what does it mean?

Written by Child Specialist Kristin Tallackson, M.A., LPC Intern (TX), LPC (OH)

Self- regulation is a term you’ll hear many professionals using. It is the ability to manage thoughts and feelings to enable goal-directed actions, and includes a variety of behaviors necessary for success in school, relationships, and the workplace (Murray, Rosanbalm, Christopoulos, & Hamoudi, 2015). Self- regulation is foundational in fostering wellbeing across the lifespan and it begins with childhood. Have you ever witnessed an adult who “blows up” or becomes mute when adverse situations occur? Me too. Adults who exhibit these behaviors were once children who were never taught emotion regulation skills. So, one may be asking, “how do I teach my children self-regulation”? It begins with co-regulation.


Many times, we confuse self-regulation as being innately internal to the individual. However, self-regulation is dependent on predictable, supportive and responsive environments (Rosanbalm, K.D., & Murray, D.W. (2017). This supportive process between caregiver and child is called “co-regulation”.  Co-regulation looks different throughout the developmental stages of infant, child, and adolescent. I will tackle each of these stages in the following weeks, but for now, I want to give a brief overview of the three categories of co-regulation.


Before adults can learn to co-regulate with their child, they must own the capacity to self-regulate their own emotions. Caregivers do this by:

·  “Paying attention to their own feelings and reactions during stressful interactions with a child, youth, or young adult.

·  Paying attention to their own thoughts and beliefs about the behaviors of others.

·  Using strategies to self-calm and respond effectively and compassionately. Caregivers greatly benefit when they take a moment for some deep breaths or self-talk. When a caregiver responds calmly to a child, youth, or young adult, it helps to keep the young person’s feelings from escalating and also models regulation skills” (Rosanbalm, K.D., & Murray, D.W. (2017).

Three categories of co-regulation are providing a warm, responsive relationship, structured environment, and teaching and coaching self-regulation skills.

 Provide a warm, responsive relationship by displaying care and affection; recognizing and responding to cues that signal needs and wants; and providing caring support in times of stress (Rosanbalm, K.D., & Murray, D.W. (2017). It is essential that caregivers show, through words and actions, that they are emotionally present in their child’s world no matter what. This is done by taking a genuine interest in what your child values. A perfect time to use empathy and active listening skills.

Structure the environment to make self-regulation manageable, providing a buffer against
environmental stressors. It is important to have consistent and predictable routines and expectations. This is a perfect time to use what I like to call the “preparation technique”. It is simply preparing your child for what to expect for the day (you’re going to school, mom/dad is going to work.,etc.). A structured, predictable environment fosters a sense of security by offering clear goals for behavior and subsequent logical consequences for negative/unexpected behavior.

“Teach and coach self-regulation skills through modeling, instruction, opportunities for practice, prompts for skill enactment, and reinforcement of each step towards successful use of skills. Like a coach on a sports team, caregivers should first teach skills, and then provide needed supports, or scaffolding, for self-regulation enactment in the moment” (Rosanbalm, K.D., & Murray, D.W. (2017).