What is co-regulation?

A lot of children who come to OTFC have difficulties with regulation. There are several types of regulation and you may have heard your OT use terms such as self-regulation, dysregulation and co-regulation.

Regulation as a whole refers to the ability of being able to adjust as a response to change. Therefore, self-regulation is an internal (individual/self) response to change. For example when you’re upset, with good self-regulation, you would be able to calm yourself down and cheer yourself up. On the other hand, dysregulation refers to the inability to control the emotional response outside of the ‘typically’ accepted range.

Co-regulation refers to the social relationships and the way one can adjust themselves when interacting with another, in order to maintain a regulated state. To reach a regulated state with co-regulation, a mutual adjustment/agreement of actions and intentions needs to be met by all involved. Co-regulation has an element of unpredictability but does follow predictable patterns. This is as ones action are influenced, but not controlled by, another’s actions therefore an exact response is unknown but can often be anticipated. The below video demonstrates how ones actions are influenced but not controlled by someone else, showing the difference between good co-regulation and poor co-regulation.

Consider one of the above guitar strings being strummed. The resonance of one string will cause the adjacent string in its vicinity to also vibrate. In the same way, your nervous system will harmonize with another person and their body language. If you are around someone whose emotional state is calm will have a grounding effect of your nervous system and you come away from those interactions feeling safe. Alternatively, if you are around someone whose thoughts and feelings are anxious and negative, this can play a big part on your own emotional development.

It is important to develop self-regulation and co-regulation as it improves our ability to respond to the appropriate information within our environment; while tuning out irrelevant information, have self-control and also provides the ability to form relationships.

Some children find it difficult to both self-regulate and co-regulate often due to sensory motor difficulties in either calming or energising their bodies. It is common that children with autism have difficulty with co-regulation due to the difficulty they have with following and identifying patterns, therefore interactions with others becomes completely unpredictable. This is also evident in children who have anxiety. Due to this uncertainty in social situations it is common to see a child withdraw or try to take full control of the interaction. Co-regulation with your child can occur between anyone, including, parents, siblings, extended family members (grandparents and cousins) or fellow peers. Some children who find it difficult to co-regulate may show attempts to gain control of an activity, not allow turn taking, show selfish behaviours, fluctuating energy levels etc.

Strategies to Support Co-Regulation Difficulties

When self-regulation or co-regulation doesn’t occur a child may become dysregulated. When a child becomes dysregulated it is important to co-regulate. This can be achieved through not focusing on the child’s behaviour but instead staying in the moment with them, empathising with facial gestures, calmly mirroring what they feel and accepting the expression of their feelings. To manage co-regulation with peers and siblings social skills groups are a commonly used option.

Sensory strategies can also help a child’s ability to self-regulate but this sometimes requires the support from an adult. This can be achieved through a sensory diet individualised to meet the needs of a child. Although it does vary from child to child a sensory diet may include deep pressure massage (proprioceptive input), rhythmic swinging (vestibular input), deep breathing and chew toys (oral input), calming, slow, rhythmic music (audio input), or the use of natural lighting (visual input).
For more information sensory diets see one of our recent blog posts:
Sensory diets

To also help support the development of regulation (both self-regulation and co-regulation) families sometimes need to access other services such as occupational therapy and psychology.


Belford, D 2012, Co-Regulation and Self-Regulation, Center for Development and Disability, The University of New Mexico, viewed 18 July 2016

Brown, D 2015, Co-regulation in Floortime: How to interact with a Distressed Child, DIR Theory, Affect Autism, viewed 18 July 2016

Fogel, A & Garvey, A 2007, ‘Alive Communication’, Infant Behaviour & Development, vol. 30, pp. 251-257

Laurel 2012, ‘What is Co-Regulation’, blog post, Remediating Autism, 21 December, viewed 18 July 2016


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