Keep Calm and Co-Regulate

Learning how to control and regulate emotions and arousal levels is one of the most important skills a child can possess. We all want our kids to feel in control and safe as they navigate this world. So how can we support our children so that they can self-regulate?

The building block to self-regulation and emotional regulation is co-regulation. Co-regulation is one of the first skills an infant develops. It is where they look to their primary caregiver when they are upset and need help. We have all seen this before – an infant crying in distress who then looks to their primary caregiver and suddenly they are soothed by this person’s voice, smell and touch, which means the child’s emotions are then regulated. This fundamental and vitally important skill helps our children to develop human connection and awareness of emotions. Once a child has mastered co-regulation, they often then progress through to be able to self-soothe and then be able to regulate their own emotions in various situations. However, the skill of co-regulation is now being delayed in many children due to screen time.

IPAD’s, television and phones are now commonly used to soothe children when they are distressed or upset. But what does this mean for their skill development? Research is emerging that some infants are now more easily soothed by a device rather than their primary caregiver. So in fact, the important skill of co-regulation is not being developed. When co-regulation isn’t developed, children are missing out on building social skills through human connection, learning how to self-soothe and learning how to be flexible and adaptable in a variety of environments.

So what can we do to support the development of co-regulation?

  1. Limit screen-time. Screens can negatively impact overall skill and brain development in children. It is important to find ways to soothe a distressed child through human connection rather than devices. This then allows them to begin to develop an understanding of the importance of connecting with others and relying on trusted humans to help them through a tricky situation.
  2. Don’t hide behind a device. Often times when a child is reaching a major milestone, or they have accomplished something, we reach for our phones or IPADs to film them. Whilst this creates an everlasting memory for the family, it also doesn’t show your facial expressions to the child – all the child sees is a device. This is then paired with social praise and all of a sudden a child may connect social praise, self-confidence and happiness to the device as this is what they see when they do something spectacular. So next time you go to film, make sure your face is visible so your child can see just how proud and excited you are for them!
  3. Be the calm in the storm – when a child is distressed, they need someone to counteract their stress with calmness. When a child is melting down, it is the role of the adult to remain calm and help them soothe and regulate their emotions. If an adult moves into a heightened state where they are then yelling as well as the child, the situation will continue to escalate. So take a deep breath, remain calm and help de-escalate the situation.

Once your child has mastered co-regulation, you can then encourage them to develop skills in self-regulation. And what is an easy and effective way to do this? Play outside! Below are some of the benefits for playing outside.

  1. The natural environment is always changing which means your child must learn how to adapt to situations.
  2. Outside play promotes the development of all of the senses – when a child is in a sensory rich environment, their bodies begin to learn how to adapt to change, be flexible and deal with environments where there is a lot going on at once.
  3. Playing outside promotes resilience which is needed for self-regulation. A natural environment requires a child to problem-solve as everything does not always go to plan and things are constantly changing. If a child can adapt to this, they will be well on their way to better control their emotions and arousal levels in a variety of situations and environments.

With all of this information in mind, I will leave you with this quote…

“It is important to reflect upon the fact that the need for co-regulation never goes away in any of our lives. Think about the last time you had a crisis in your life and were helped by another calmer human brain that provided you with a soothing presence and you felt a sense of safety because of your relationship with this person.”

Eyes Are Never Quiet: Listening Beneath the Behaviors of Our Most Troubled Students

By Lori Desautels, Michael McKnight


Kait is passionate about her work of supporting children and their families to feel confident and competent to meet the joys and challenges of day to day life. Her work as a paediatric OT has allowed her to develop specialist skills in play, toileting, feeding and self help skills.

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