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Co-Regulation from Birth to Young Adulthood

Adult caregivers such as parents, teachers, coaches, and other mentors play a critical role in shaping and supporting self-regulation development from birth through young adulthood through an interactive process called “co-regulation.”


Co-regulation: What is it and why is it important?

Self-regulation has become recognized for its foundational role in promoting wellbeing across the lifespan, including educational achievement and physical, emotional, social and economic health. Selfregulation can be defined as the act of managing thoughts and feelings to enable goal-directed actions, and includes a variety of behaviors necessary for success in school, relationships, and the workplace (Murray, Rosanbalm, Christopoulos, & Hamoudi, 2015: Foundations for Understanding Self-Regulation from an Applied Developmental Perspective, http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/opre/resource/selfregulation-and-toxic-stress-foundations-for-understanding-self-regulation-from-an-applieddevelopmental-perspective). Although it may sound like something internal to an individual, self-regulation develops through interaction with caregivers such as parents, teachers, coaches, and other mentors. Further, self-regulation development is dependent on predictable, responsive, and supportive environments. Because caregivers are vital to self-regulation development, teaching adults in caregiving roles to promote self-regulation can be powerful.


The supportive process between caring adults and children, youth, or young adults that fosters self-regulation development is called “co-regulation.” This term began as a description of adult support for infants, but is now used to describe an interactive process of regulatory support that can occur within the context of caring relationships across the lifespan. Co-regulation will look different at different ages as child capacity for self-regulation grows, but remains a critical resource across development. This brief describes coregulation skills and strategies for caregivers at each stage from birth through young adulthood.


What caregiver behaviors contribute to co-regulation? In this brief, the term “caregiver” is used to describe any adult who provides care and support to a child, youth, or young adult. This includes but is not limited to parents, guardians, teachers, child care providers, coaches, youth group leaders, and other mentors. Regardless of their role, a caregiver’s warmth, responsiveness, and sensitivity support self-regulation development and may buffer the effects of adverse childhood experiences. Effective co-regulation by a supportive caregiver will promote self efficacy and allow children, youth, and young adults to feel secure enough to practice new skills and learn from mistakes. There are three broad categories of support that caregivers can provide to children, youth, and young adults that will help them to develop foundational self-regulatory skills and expand these skills to meet increasingly complex regulatory needs as they grow (Murray et al., 2015):

  • Provide a warm, responsive relationship by displaying care and affection; recognizing and responding to cues that signal needs and wants; and providing caring support in times of stress. Caregivers can build strong relationships with children, youth, and young adults by communicating, through words and actions, their interest in the young person’s world, respect for the young person as an individual, and commitment to caring for the young person no matter what (i.e., unconditional positive regard). 

  • Structure the environment to make self-regulation manageable, providing a buffer against environmental stressors. This means creating an environment that is physically and emotionally safe for children, youth, and young adults to explore and learn at their level of development without serious risk to their wellbeing. Consistent, predictable routines and expectations likewise promote a sense of security by providing clear goals for behavior regulation, in addition to well-defined logical consequences for negative behaviors. 

  • Teach and coach self-regulation skills through modeling, instruction, opportunities for practice, prompts for skill enactment, and reinforcement of each step towards successful use of skills. Like a coach on a sports team, caregivers should first teach skills, and then provide needed supports, or scaffolding, for self-regulation enactment in the moment.

  • Pay attention to their own feelings and reactions during stressful interactions with a child, youth, or young adult. 

  • Pay attention to their own thoughts and beliefs about the behaviors of others. 

  • Use strategies to self-calm and respond effectively and compassionately. Caregivers greatly benefit when they take a moment for some deep breaths or self-talk. When a caregiver responds calmly to a child, youth, or young adult, it helps to keep the young person’s feelings from escalating and also models regulation skills.

Self-regulation during a stressful interaction with a child, youth, or young adult is no easy task, particularly when there are multiple activities and stressors vying for a caregiver’s mental and emotional resources. Caregivers may need support, practice, and coaching from friends/family or professionals to build their own coping and calm-down skills, which in turn will aid them in promoting these skills for the children, youth, and young adults in their care.


How much co-regulation is needed?

Capacity for self-regulation develops over time, from infancy through young adulthood (and beyond). Consequently, the amount of co-regulation a child, youth, or young adult needs will vary as they grow. The graph below presents a theoretical model of the balance of a young person’s capacity for self regulation and need for adult support.

This is merely a conceptual depiction of normative growth in self regulation capacity; the exact ratio will vary by individual and situation. One way of thinking about this ratio is that, for optimal functioning in the moment, children, youth, and young adults need to have their self-regulation “bucket” filled. Depending on developmental stage, environmental circumstances, and individual differences, young people themselves have the capacity to fill their self-regulation bucket to varying levels.

To successfully manage their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, they need caregivers to provide co-regulation that fills the remainder of the bucket. As illustrated by the red ovals in the graph below, there are two clear developmental periods where child and youth abilities to self-regulate can increase dramatically due to corresponding changes in brain development. These are early childhood and early adolescence. During these periods, intervention and co-regulation support can capitalize on child and youth readiness to build and practice new self regulation skills.

Support in these developmental windows may be particularly well-timed to smooth life transitions, first into school and then into adulthood. As a child’s ability to self-regulate increases, less caregiver co-regulation is required.

For an infant, co-regulation support will encompass a large proportion of regulatory needs: babies need caregivers to feed them when they are hungry, help them sleep when they are tired, and give cuddles when they are overwhelmed.

An older youth, on the other hand, may only need co-regulation support during complex life transitions or 4 when emotionally overwhelmed. To the extent that either a young person’s skills or caregiver support are limited, the “regulation bucket” may be only partially filled, which will directly affect that young person’s emotions, cognitions, and behavior.

When regulation continually falls short, functional challenges will be evident, and may result in significant social-emotional, behavioral or physical health concerns.












What co-regulation support do young children need?

As summarized in Murray et al. (2015), self-regulation begins to develop at birth and expands rapidly over the first five years of life. Co-regulation, likewise, should shift to complement this development.


In infancy, babies require adults to manage a large portion of their regulatory needs, from feeding to temperature control to management of environmental stimuli. Infants react physically to the sensory information around them, with little capacity to change their experience. They need adults who are sensitive to their cues and able to provide a soothing presence in times of distress.

Toddlers are beginning to build motor and language skills that allow them to control some aspects of their environment, like moving away from a loud noise or asking for something to eat. They continue to have strong emotions that far outweigh these emerging skills, however. In this developmental period, caregivers can begin to purposely teach and model skills like waiting (i.e., brief delay of gratification) and using simple words to communicate needs. Adults are still largely responsible for structuring a safe and manageable environment, as well as for providing comfort and reassurance when toddlers are upset. During the preschool years, children experience rapid growth in areas of the brain associated with self-regulation, which makes them developmentally much more prepared to learn and use self-regulation skills. This is the perfect time for caregivers to actively teach and coach skills like emotion identification, problem-solving, perspective-taking, and calm-down strategies. Children will need considerable repetition, prompting, and practice in using these new skills. Likewise, caregiver modeling of these skills is important, as children watch adults closely to learn how they should behave. Co-regulation in this stage will include teaching and communicating clear rules and expectations, and using consistent natural or logical consequences provided firmly but calmly. As in earlier developmental periods, preschool children continue to need structured, predictable environments and warm, responsive caregivers that provide a supportive context in which to practice new skills.


What co-regulation support do school-aged children need?

In elementary school, children gain more control over their attention, emotions, and behavior. They have a growing ability to manage their impulses and delay gratification, and they become aware of their own thinking processes, emotions, and decision-making. At the same time, behavioral expectations and social interactions become more complex in the school environment. This is a relatively stable period developmentally, which gives caregivers extensive opportunities to instruct and coach children in using self-regulatory skills. Ongoing co-regulation support across the elementary years will help skills crystalize and grow in sophistication over time in preparation for the increased demands of adolescence.

Skills for caregivers to teach and practice with children during the elementary years include:

  • Emotional literacy, including recognizing emotions and using words to express more complex feelings

  • Emotion regulation:

-Ignoring things that are mildly irritating, distracting, or frustrating

-Calming down using strategies like deep breathing, relaxation, imagery, or positive self-talk

  • Social flexibility, such as trying a friend’s idea or considering others’ perspectives • Social skills, like being patient and taking turns • Paying attention and staying focused

  • Working independently

  • Persistence with difficult tasks

  • Problem-solving skills and flexible thinking

What co-regulation support do adolescents need?

In adolescence, brain architecture once again undergoes major changes, bringing both benefits and challenges for self-regulation. In early and mid-adolescence, brain systems that process emotions and seek rewards are more developed than the cognitive control systems responsible for good decision-making and future planning.

This means that teens are biased towards choices that offer short-term reward rather than long-term benefit, and their emotions heavily influence their decisions. Given that poor decisions during adolescence can have long-term negative consequences, this is not the time for caregivers to step back from their supportive roles; co-regulation support during this developmental period is crucial.

Though adolescents are developmentally separating from caregivers and seeking more independence, maintenance of a warm and accepting relationship with a caring adult is as important as ever. Adolescents will need caregivers who can listen supportively in times of strong emotion, provide space and support for youth to calm-down in times of conflict, and coach coping skills for a multitude of stressful situations. Likewise, though adolescents do need opportunities for independent decision making and action, they have equal need for caregivers to monitor their actions, protect them from dangerous situations, and support responsible choices.

Skills for caregivers to teach and coach across adolescence include:

  • Awareness of and attention to emotions

  • Strategies to tolerate and manage normal levels of stress/distress

  • Strategies for seeking help when stress is unmanageable or the context is dangerous

  • Effective organization, time management, and task completion skills

  • Setting longer-term goals and self monitoring to achieve them

  • Problem-solving complex life situations

  • Effective decision-making “in the moment”

  • Anticipating challenges and problem solving in advance

  • Decision-making with a future perspective

  • Compassion for self and others


Reference: Co-Regulation From Birth Through Young Adulthood: A Practice Brief: https://fpg.unc.edu/sites/fpg.unc.edu/files/resources/reports-and-policy-briefs/Co-RegulationFromBirthThroughYoungAdulthood.pdf

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