Mom and daughter connecting.

How to Claim the Power of Co-Regulation

Every now and then I come across an amazing, powerful, or inspiring book that I can’t wait to share with others. A book I am encouraging anyone who deals with children or families to read is called Regulation and Co-regulation: Accessible Neuroscience and Connection Strategies That Bring Calm into the Classroom by Ginger Healy, a clinical social worker. Written in 2023, this is a book whose strategies can bring calmness into a family as well as a classroom. I think these strategies can also bring calm into any conversations that have the potential to become heated.

The author begins by sharing a personal story of a first-grade experience when she was in a race and didn’t hear the teacher shout “Go!” She not only lost the race but she said she lost her dignity because the children around her all laughed at her. Someone from the lunchroom saw her crying and took her into the kitchen. She gave her a coloring book and crayons and sat with her while she colored quietly. After a few minutes she told her she needed to go back to class. When she got there she had her weekly spelling test which she aced. She knows she wouldn’t have done that well if she hadn’t had the experience with the kind lunchroom lady. One thing of course she didn’t know was that what happened when she was allowed to sit with someone and quietly color was that she was being co-regulated.

The author defines regulation, also called emotional regulation, as “the ability to modify emotions and respond to situations with balance, calm, and control.” She goes on to say that “dysregulation happens when an individual doesn’t feel safe. Their ability to function is compromised, and they cannot meet the demands of the external environment.”

When someone is dysregulated, they often act out, are irrational, appear to be out of control, may yell, stomp their feet, or throw things. Or there could be more subtle signs of dysregulation like someone who has glazed eyes and speaks flatly, who moves slowly, slouches, and lacks curiosity.

The premise of her book is that it is through our connections with others that we can experience co-regulation. She states that co-regulation occurs: “when a child and a nurturing, reliable caregiver share a sense of safety and engage in warm and responsive interactions to learn how to soothe and manage distressing emotions. The adult provides intentional modeling of the regulated state, and the child learns self-regulation. It helps the child understand their feelings, thoughts, and subsequent behavior.”

Co-regulation does not just happen. The mirror neurons in people’s brains pick up on the emotions others are projecting and people are pulled to imitate them. All this happens at an unconscious level. The outward behaviors of being regulated often are the result of all the subtle messages that promote that inner self-regulation.

Children can learn about co-regulation and can become competent in helping their friends and other children regulate. Adults can promote regulation in other adults by projecting calmness and warmth even when things get heated. 

The author shares a clarifying quote from Dr. Lori Desautels: “Co-regulation is really about reciprocity. It’s about social support. It happens through our non-verbal communication. It happens in my tone. It happens through my face. And through the tilt of my head. Showing that I care. That I’m listening. I don’t have to solve the problem in that moment.”

Invitation for Reflection

  1. Remember a time when you were highly dysregulated. What were some of your behaviors? How did it feel to struggle with your emotions?
  2. Can you remember a time when you were highly dysregulated and someone helped you regulate? What things did they do that helped you “borrow” their regulated state?
  3. How can you be intentional about promoting co-regulation for yourself and others in your life?