Co-Regulation vs. Self-Regulation: What’s the Difference?
Emotional regulation is a super important skill for children to develop.
What does emotional regulation mean? At the core, it’s going from out of control of your emotions and shifting back into control. Imagine if you felt angry or scared, and couldn’t get yourself back to feeling calm or safe. Yikes!
For kids, emotional regulation comes in two different forms. Co-regulation and self-regulation.
We’ll explain both forms and how age affects which one a child can do.
We’ll start with self-regulation first – it’s the one people are most familiar with. It means the ability to control and manage emotions yourself.
What does self-regulation look like for a child? It could be:
Taking deep breaths when frustrated or anxious
Squeezing, throwing, or punching a pillow when angry or upset
Refocusing their attention on a task
Calming themselves down after feeling very excited
Even though it’s called “self-regulation” you can still help support kids in learning how to do it. You can give reminders of healthy ways to express emotions or let them know you’re there for them if they need help.
A child’s ability to effectively self-regulate doesn’t start until they’ve reached preschool age. So what does that mean for children younger than preschool age?
They need co-regulation.
Co-regulation means using your voice, actions, movements, gestures, and even physical touch like hugs or holding to help an infant or toddler feel safe and calm. And it starts from birth! Infants, toddlers, and sometimes preschoolers need co-regulation.
But wait – preschoolers are developing self-regulation, so why would they also need co-regulation? Preschoolers are crossing an imaginary bridge between co- and self-regulation. They may have some self-regulation skills, but sometimes they need more support.
Imagine a preschooler accidentally steps on a bee and gets stung. Not only does it hurt a lot, but they might be feeling a lot of fear as to what may happen next. They are crying, overwhelmed, panicked, and don’t seem responsive to any self-regulation suggestions like taking deep breaths.
In this scenario (after getting the stinger out of course), you may need to hold or hug them, use a gentle voice to help them realize they are safe, and help “bring them back down to earth” so to speak.
If you’ve cared for any infants or toddlers, you’ve most definitely provided co-regulation – maybe without even knowing it.
Imagine this: an infant is learning how to stand while holding onto the edge of a couch. They lose their balance, fall to their bottom, and begin to cry. Falling is scary (unless you really like skydiving or bungee jumping)! You would most likely help them up, say “you’re ok, I’m right here” in a calming voice, and maybe hold them to help them calm down. That’s you providing co-regulation!
Supporting a child with co-regulation will help them develop stronger self-regulation skills as they grow.
Let’s wrap it up!
Here’s a super quick breakdown of what you just read. Co-regulation comes first with the help of a caregiver, then self-regulation – well, by themselves.
We like to say “self is 2nd” to remember the order!
For more resources on all things emotions, head back to our main blog!