How Co-Regulation Can Help Build Self-Regulation Skills

Dr. Caroline Leaf
5 min readJul 18, 2022

In a recent podcast (episode #400), I talked about co-regulation. Co-regulation is a way of helping someone develop self-regulation. The person co-regulates by staying present for the individual, helping them navigate a challenging experience and move towards greater self-awareness. This involves a supportive relationship between two or more people that is process-driven — the goal is to help a person self-regulate themselves while in a highly emotional state.

Self-regulation is a skill we increasingly develop over time starting from childhood, and co-regulation is one of the ways we can develop this skill. Our ability to self-regulate can be affected when we have experienced trauma or are distressed; co-regulation can potentially help us get back to self-regulating our thoughts, feelings and choices.

Self-regulation can be disrupted to varying degrees, especially during challenging life events and adverse circumstances. This is where co-regulation can be helpful: it is a way of helping someone who is struggling mentally and emotionally rebuild their own self-regulation skills, which are needed to manage their mind.

When someone is in acute distress, they may find it difficult to think rationally or problem-solve. This is because since their state of mind is literally all over the place, they experience a chemical rush that can cause a type of neurochemical “chaos” in the brain. This often leads to reduced blood flow and oxygen at the front of the brain, thereby increasing impulsivity, while the two sides of the brain act out of coherence, which results in too much high beta energy activity and not enough alpha energy activity. All of this decreases a person’s ability to reason and make good decisions in the moment. When we co-regulate, we are helping to quiet the other person’s mind, enabling their active (conscious mind) and dynamic (nonconscious mind) self-regulation to work together, which brings balance and coherence back into the brain.

There are two main phases of healthy co-regulation:

Phase 1- Physiological: There are many strategies to deescalate/calm down a highly emotional situation in the moment, such as a 10 second breathing exercise (breathe in for 3 counts and out for 7 counts), havening, tapping, hugs, stress balls, reading out loud to someone, and movement like yoga.

Phase 2 — Veto power: Once the person has calmed down physiologically, as a

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Dr. Caroline Leaf

Mental health expert. I have spent the last 30+ years researching ways to help people manage mental health issues in school, work, and life: drleaf.com