Co-regulation

Two punks with colorful Mohawks at denim battle jackets hold hands with their backs to the camera

Co-regulation is when we complete the stress cycle with the support of a safe enough person.

Infants & small children do not have the biological capacity to complete the stress cycle alone. That is built over time through a multitude of coregulation experiences.

A safe enough person is a person in safe & social mode. They have deep belly breathing, expressive face, soft gaze, calm heart rate, prosodic voice, and the ability to enjoy safe touch or closeness.

The Neuroscience of Community. A set of graphics by Janae Elisabeth… | by Trauma Geek | Age of Awareness | Medium
Co-regulation is when we complete the stress cycle with the support of a safe enough person.

Infants & small children do not have the biological capacity to complete the stress cycle alone. That is built over time through a multitude of coregulation experiences.

A safe enough person is a person in safe & social mode. They have deep belly breathing, expressive face, soft gaze, calm heart rate, prosodic voice, and the ability to enjoy safe touch or closeness.

Trauma Geek
Image credit: Trauma Geek

Let’s look at the actual core concepts of PVT: Hierarchy, Neuroception, and Co-regulation.

Hierarchy refers to the order in which our bodies activate the 3 neural circuits of the Autonomic Nervous System (the ventral vagus complex, the sympathetic adrenal system, and the dorsal vagus nerve complex). Neuroception is the body’s ability to sense danger or safety in our environment and cue the activation of the 3 neural circuits. Co-regulation is the ultimate safety signal wherein resonance with another nervous system allows us to engage the ventral vagus nerve complex. 

Evolution of a Theory: Polyvagal is Not Dead — Trauma Geek

Children need repeated experiences of co-regulation from a regulated adult before they can begin to self-regulate. We may have to act as “external nervous systems” for children who are constantly in a heightened state. They may also not have a toolbox to learn how to regulate by themselves and we may be a key resource to help them create tools that work for them.

As explained above, autistic people may experience a huge amount of difficulties, resulting in high levels of stress/ trauma. The result of this can be that autistic young people are unable to regulate themselves when they are stressed, as they may not have much experience of being able to get themselves to a feeling of safety. When this is managed successfully e.g. leaving a room, they can be punished for it – which sends the message that regulating themselves is not ok.

This means that we often have to act as “external nervous systems” for young people who are in a heightened state. And we may have to support them in creating their own toolbox of regulation techniques.

Through our actions and through co-regulating with young people, we can show that they are safe, and also that we are safe people to go to when they are stressed. Then over time, with repeated experiences where it is ‘ok to not be ok’ and young people are met with support and empathy, they will be able to better regulate themselves over time. 

The feelings and behaviour of people around us affect how we feel. This applies to everyone, but can be more important in the case of autistic people, who often have higher emotional sensitivity than others (one of the reasons autistic people can struggle with eye contact, is because eyes are incredibly emotional so they can cause emotional overwhelm). Many autistics emotionally mirror – feeling a nearby person’s emotion as if they are our own.

This means that when young people become upset, they can calm down quicker if the people around them are genuinely calm, and demonstrate how to calm down to them. 

Co-regulation is a skill that can be learnt – our guidance on co-regulation can be found here.

Key Principles when supporting autistic people

Co-regulation is the act of soothing and helping to calm someone during a moment of dysregulation. No-one is born with the ability to self-soothe; it is a skill we develop over time and with experience. Children need repeated experiences of co-regulation from a regulated adult before they can begin to self-regulate.

We may have to act as “external nervous systems” for children who are constantly in a heightened state. By being nearby and in a state of regulation ourselves, this can help a child’s Nervous System to become regulated.

As explained above, autistic people may experience a huge amount of difficulties, resulting in high levels of stress/ trauma. The result of this can be that autistic young people are unable to regulate themselves when they are stressed, as they may not have much experience of being able to get themselves to a feeling of safety. When this is managed successfully e.g. leaving a room, they can be punished for it – which sends the message that regulating themselves is not ok.

This means that we often have to act as “external nervous systems” for young people who are in a heightened state. Through our actions and through co-regulating with young people, we can show that they are safe, and also that we are safe people to go to when they are stressed. Then over time, with repeated experiences where it is ‘ok to not be ok’ and young people are met with support and empathy, they will be able to better regulate themselves over time. 

The feelings and behaviour of people around us, affect how we feel. This applies to everyone, but can be more important in the case of autistic people, who often have higher emotional sensitivity than others (one of the reasons autistic people can struggle with eye contact, is because eyes are incredibly emotional so they can cause emotional overwhelm).

This means that when young people become upset, they can calm down quicker if the people around them appear calm, and demonstrate how to calm down to them. 

Co-regulation is the ability to regulate emotions and stress related behaviours, with the support and direction of a connecting individual. The connecting individual supports regulation through the use of a variety of strategies to soothe or respond in times of stress. This includes looking at external stressors, but also internal thoughts and feelings. 

Co-regulation is about “showing young people the ropes” of calming their internal and external systems. Then over time, young people will gain the skills to be able to do this for themselves.

The importance of coregulation and selfcare

Further reading,

Published by Ryan Boren

#ActuallyAutistic retired technologist turned wannabe-sociologist. Equity literate education, respectfully connected parenting, passion-based learning, indie ed-tech, neurodiversity, social model of disability, design for real life, inclusion, open web, open source. he/they