Co-Regulation as a Tool for Fostering the Development of Self-Regulation Skills

Written by: Kimberly Addon, MOT, OTR/L

Disappointments, frustrations, disagreements, stress. These are all factors that we aim to protect our children from, but inevitably, our children will have to face these things and having a toolbox of self-regulation skills helps our children be equipped to handle and thrive in these moments. Self-regulation is the process of managing thoughts and feelings to enable goal-directed actions that are necessary for success in school, relationships, and the workplace (Murray, Rosanbalm, Christopoulos, & Hamoudi, 2015). This definition makes the act of self-regulation appear to be a process that is individual and internal, but this skill is actually developed through external interactions and observations. Ultimately, as caregivers, we play a crucial role in developing our child’s sense of self-regulation, and the support we provide to support this development is known as co-regulation. 

Co-regulation can be defined as “the supportive process between caring adults and children, youth, or young adults that fosters self-regulation development” (Rosenbalm & Murray, 2017).  The concept of co-regulation was first used to describe the support a caregiver provides for their infant, but over time, this definition has broadened to include the continued support a caregiver provides through young adulthood. Children develop an increased capacity for self-regulation over time, and as a result, co-regulation looks different at different developmental stages. This post will explore the foundations of co-regulation as well as how you can use these principles to support your child’s development of self-regulation skills.

The Basics of Co-Regulation

The three main components of co-regulation are providing a warm, responsive relationship; structuring the environment; and teaching and coaching self-regulation skills. The chart below describes these components in further details. From looking at this chart, you can see that the basics of co-regulation are rooted in developing a secure, safe, and loving connection with your child. This blog post will focus on the third component of co-regulation: the teaching and coaching of self-regulation skills.



Co-Regulation from Infancy to Young Adulthood

As mentioned above, co-regulation looks different at different developmental stages. The following tables include some examples of what co-regulation strategies might look like at different developmental stages. In reading through this chart, it can be noted that the role of the caregiver changes from providing support for self-regulation, to teaching about self-regulation, to coaching and encouraging the independent use of self-regulation skills. The individual self-regulation skills also become more advanced over time. As an occupational therapist, I use this progression as I help your child learn about self-regulation, learn strategies to help their body feel more calm and focused, and ultimately promote the ability to independently manage these self-regulation skills.

Co-Regulation in Infancy:

  • Anticipate your infant’s needs and respond to their cues
  • Provide physical and emotional comfort when your child is distressed or dysregulated. 
  • When your infant is distressed or dysregulated, maintain your own sense of self-regulation through taking deep breaths and speaking calmly as you give affection and care to your infant
Co-Regulation in Toddlerhood:

  • Teach your toddler about different emotions. Model this by labeling your own emotions and guiding them through labeling their own emotions
  • Teach and model self-calming strategies, such as taking deep breaths
  • Teach and model skills, such as waiting (delayed gratification) and communicating one’s needs
Co-Regulation in Preschool-Aged Children:

  • Teach and coach strategies for identifying solutions to simple problems
  • Model, prompt, and reinforce self-calming strategies, such as taking deep breaths or taking a break
  • Support self-calming strategies by providing structure that supports the development of self-regulation skills. For example, provide a calm-down space for taking a break when your child is overwhelmed
Co-Regulation in Elementary-Aged Children:

  • Coach your child in problem-solving skills to help them navigate more complex academic, behavioral, and social situations
  • Model conflict resolution strategies
  • Prompt and coach coping skills and calm-down strategies that are more complex, including positive self-talk, deep breathing, imagery, and relaxation
  • Teach and model emotional regulation skills (e.g. ignoring things that are mildly irritating, distracting, or frustrating) and social flexibility (e.g. trying a friend’s idea, considering theperspectives of others)
Co-Regulation in Adolescents:

  • Provide support and empathy in times of intense emotion and stress
  • Model and coach increasingly more advanced self-regulation skills (e.g. strategies for handling normal levels of stress and strategies for seeking help when stress is unmanageable)
  • Provide your child with time and space to calm down during high-stress moments
  • Monitor and encourage the use of organizational and planning skills for success in schoolwork. Encourage setting long term goals and self-monitoring in order to meet thesegoals
Co-Regulation in Young Adults:

  • Provide empathy and comfort during high stress moments. Prompt and support the use of coping strategies in these moments
  • Support the achievement of long term goals by encouraging effective planning 
  • Share your perspectives and provide coaching for solving complex problems and making difficult decisions
  • Provide space for your young adult to make their own decisions and experience the consequences of those decisions

The Role of the Caregiver’s Own Self-Regulation in Co-Regulation

Co-regulation is seen as a process that is dependent on the caregiver being in touch with their own capacity for self-regulation in order to fully support their child’s development of self-regulation. In order to successfully co-regulate and use the above strategies with your child, here are some considerations to support your own self-regulation:

  • Check-in with your own feelings and reactions during stressful interactions with your child.
  • Be mindful of your own thoughts and beliefs about the behaviors of others.
  • Use your own self-regulation strategies to respond effectively and compassionately when your child is experiencing a stressful moment

When you as a caregiver actively practice self-regulation strategies during stressful moments, your child receives the benefit of receiving calming input that can keep their feelings from further escalating. Your child also receives the benefit of observing self-regulation strategies in practice, which helps them learn how these strategies can be applied to their own experiences. This can be a challenging thing to achieve as a caregiver, especially during high stress situations, but taking the time to practice and build one’s own coping and calm-down skills as a caregiver is a crucial component for supporting a child’s development of their own self-regulation skills. Here are some ideas to explore your own self-regulation skills:

  • Take deep breaths
  • Be in touch with your feelings and label them
  • Engage in visualization exercises to help yourself calm down. For example, visualize yourself in a calm state
  • Explore ways to give yourself a break that are comforting and calming. This can include exercise, listening to music, journaling, etc.


Co-regulation is a crucial process of interaction between caregivers and children and youths that supports the development of self-regulation skills. This process begins in infancy and changes over time as children develop and learn self-regulation strategies. Modeling and providing opportunities for your child to practice self-regulation strategies at home is a crucial step to help your child develop self-regulation skills. It is important to be in-tune with your own emotions and personal self-regulation strategies in order to help your child develop their self-regulation skills. 

Occupational therapy uses evidence based strategies to promote self-regulation skills and strategies for co-regulation.Occupational therapists can help your child explore and learn self-regulation strategies, learn how to identify their feelings, and increase their ability to handle stressors. Occupational therapists use teaching and modeling to help children develop these skills in the clinic and provide training for families to promote this carryover at home. The principles of co-regulation are crucial in any occupational therapy session to promote learning and exploring self-regulation strategies, and co-regulation truly is the factor that makes these interventions so successful. Ask your child’s occupational therapist how co-regulation can help support your child.



Murray, DW; Rosanbalm, KD; Christopoulos, C; & Hamoudi, A (2015). Self-regulation and toxic stress: Foundations for understanding self-regulation from an applied developmental perspective. Retrieved from


Rosanbalm, K.D., & Murray, D.W. (2017). Caregiver Co-regulation Across Development: A Practice Brief. OPRE Brief #2017-80. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, US. Department of Health and Human Services. 


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