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The importance of co-regulation and self-care



Co-regulation is the act of soothing and helping to calm someone during a moment of dysregulation. No-one is born with the ability to self-soothe; it is a skill we develop over time and with experience. Children need repeated experiences of co-regulation from a regulated adult before they can begin to self-regulate.

We may have to act as “external nervous systems” for children who are constantly in a heightened state. By being nearby and in a state of regulation ourselves, this can help a child’s Nervous System to become regulated.

As explained above, autistic people may experience a huge amount of difficulties, resulting in high levels of stress/ trauma. The result of this can be that autistic young people are unable to regulate themselves when they are stressed, as they may not have much experience of being able to get themselves to a feeling of safety. When this is managed successfully e.g. leaving a room, they can be punished for it - which sends the message that regulating themselves is not ok.


This means that we often have to act as “external nervous systems” for young people who are in a heightened state. Through our actions and through co-regulating with young people, we can show that they are safe, and also that we are safe people to go to when they are stressed. Then over time, with repeated experiences where it is ‘ok to not be ok’ and young people are met with support and empathy, they will be able to better regulate themselves over time. 


The feelings and behaviour of people around us, affect how we feel. This applies to everyone, but can be more important in the case of autistic people, who often have higher emotional sensitivity than others (one of the reasons autistic people can struggle with eye contact, is because eyes are incredibly emotional so they can cause emotional overwhelm).


This means that when young people become upset, they can calm down quicker if the people around them appear calm, and demonstrate how to calm down to them. 

Co-regulation is the ability to regulate emotions and stress related behaviours, with the support and direction of a connecting individual. The connecting individual supports regulation through the use of a variety of strategies to soothe or respond in times of stress. This includes looking at external stressors, but also internal thoughts and feelings. 


Co-regulation is about “showing young people the ropes” of calming their internal and external systems. Then over time, young people will gain the skills to be able to do this for themselves.


Co-regulation involves various types of responses. It can include:

  • Being a warm and calming presence

  • Empathising with a young person

  • Modelling behaviours that can modulate arousal 

  • Providing a structured environment that reduces uncertainty and provides feelings of safety. 

  • Making changes to the environment, such as removing triggers and reducing sensory input when a young person is becoming stressed.


An important part of co-regulation is that it is only possible to do this when we are not too stressed ourselves. Our response when we are stressed is exactly the same as when a young person is stressed. We lose our abilities to think logically and our brains tell us that we are unsafe. Then, we can default to punishments, making demands and doing what you can to regain control. In hindsight, this is not the right approach to take, but in the heat of the moment your brain is unable to access the parts of the brain it needs to work out a better way of supporting young people.


It is important to know that this is a natural part of being human and happens to all of us sometimes. When this happens, we believe in apologising, explaining why this happened and making sure young people know it was not their fault. Otherwise, young people may see you as hostile/ unpredictable, or feel like they have done something wrong but do not know what it was, and this can cause additional stress. Sometimes, this reparation process is more impactful than getting everything right, all of the time. 


If we start to focus on a young person’s behaviour too much, this is a sign of stress! If this happens consistently, it may be a sign you need extra support with your role or that some time away could be helpful (as supporting young people who have been traumatised by the world is stressful for caregivers too). 


A key factor here is that connection/ a positive relationship is what young people say is the most important when it comes to supporting them. Even if you don’t get everything right or can’t work out all the solutions, being willing to try matters. If a young person is struggling and you don’t know how to help, they will still be grateful you are there and trying. Sometimes, this is enough to reduce the amount they are struggling with over time.


Case study


“Due to our sons autism, sensory issues, school environment, bullying and lack of understanding from staff our son was constantly in fight or flight mode and everything becomes an issue and his level of coping skills reduced and he was tipped over the edge for the smallest of issues and staff not following advice from his passport, situations escalated and he become angry all the time. 


It was a terrible, dark time for our son and for us as a family. He was referred to HYM numerous times due to self harm and suicide ideation.

We felt that as a family we were at breaking point as we were worried about his emotional health. He was so angry and anxious all the time which caused his behaviour to become very challenging at home as well.


Fast forward a little and our son is in a new school, where he is thriving. He now has lots of friends and he is a popular member of the class.


Our son is getting his confidence and self esteem back, he attends clubs and after school activities on a regular basis. He is happy in himself and although he is now a teenager we don’t have any of the challenging behaviour as previously experienced when he was on high alert/anxiety mode.  


He happily goes to school and comes home relaxed. No concerns re his mental health and he no longer has thoughts of self harm. However he is scarred from his previous experience of school. For this I can’t forgive, but have to let it go for the sake of my own mental health. 

We still have bumps along the way but the difference is that staff listen and have an understanding of his challenges and needs. I am so grateful to his new school because I have my boy back.”


An essential part of supporting young people is self care, as it is impossible to support young people in the best possible way when you are stressed yourself. Even if you feel the community needs your input, taking time away to refresh and relax means you will be able to offer better support that better meets their needs when you return. 


To be an effective partner in co-regulation you must be able to regulate and calm your emotions, a dysregulated person cannot anchor or aid another person. 

Self Care


Self care is vital - it isn’t possible to properly care for young people when you are overwhelmed yourself. You will start to lose access to your empathetic responses and strategies that you know work when you are at your best.

Supporting young people intensely can also result in feelings of burnout. Caring for young people is a hugely positive attribute to have, but it can also result in trying to fix everything for a young person, and this can take a huge mental toll. Feelings of care and empathy are a huge driving force, as we do not want young people to struggle, and it often leads to us feeling sadness/ anger/ frustration, but it can also lead to overwhelm. 


Therefore, we think it is incredibly important to ensure you have tools, strategies and practical support available for self care, so you can always be at your best. There are a few considerations here, but you will have your own staff wellbeing support at your organisation. If you are a parent, then online communities/ spaces are a fantastic space for additional support and ideas:


  • Having an empathetic listener: Sometimes, it is really helpful to be able to ‘offload’ on someone, without them offering any solutions and strategies. This opportunity to speak freely without blame or judgement is an important way to destress. Then if you decide to at a later stage when you are more relaxed, it may be possible to problem solve with them. 

  • Brain breaks: Do you have opportunities to remove yourself from the environment so you can relax and restore brain energy? Is there an activity you enjoy that can give you the respite you need? People can feel guilty when doing this, but remember children need breaks from us too! It can break the cycle of upset/ difficulty/ tension, and both you and the young person have time to look at the situation from a different perspective. 

  • Make time for an uninterrupted cup of tea, venting to a friend, playing a game

  • Saving a sweet treat/ movie/ nice video

  • Having a warm, lengthy bath

  • Taking regular planned breaks proactively, rather than as an afterthought

  • Setting timeout in your week for reflection and planning.

  • Gym, walk, garden

  • During stressful moments, focus on something in the distance

  • Headphones to put on with music when gets too much

  • Playlists based on emotions

  • Going for a run 

  • Attending support groups


Self care is more than a using bath bomb once a week, Self Care is regular scheduled breaks, making time to care for yourself and having a support system in place for yourself and you child. Sometimes lowering expectations of yourself (yes, even further if that’s what’s needed!), for example takeaway is fine, do you actually have to hoover or saying no when asked to do something without feeling the need to justify yourself. Self care works best before you’re struggling as a proactive measure.


Think about the phrase: You cannot pour from an empty cup.

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