Think of a parent whose baby is upset and crying: What does that parent do? She will hold the baby close, bounce him up and down in strong, rhythmic motions and hum or say “sh, sh, sh, sh” with the same level of energy as the infant is demonstrating in order to soothe him. The baby can feel the vibration of his mother’s chest as she hums and can feel her intention to help him through this experience. It is this type of behavior on the part of the parent that lends the infant’s immature nervous system the experiences it needs to learn to calm, organize, and soothe itself. But what if the parent were to hold the baby loosely, not bounce him, and not verbalize at all? The baby would likely not feel his parent’s presence and not feel soothed. If this happens chronically, he will not learn how to soothe himself and manage intense feelings, and he will also learn that no one can help him when he’s distressed.
What it means to co-regulate is to intervene at the appropriate physiologic level to connect with a person and capture the “attention” of their whole body. For example: if a child is running around the room chaotically, you might hold the child’s hand and make a game of “ring around the rosy” out of and then, when “we all fall down”, place them in your lap, facing out, and begin rocking back and forth, humming a calm song like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. On a regulatory level, you have met the child at his highly aroused level and helped to organize it, and then quickly provided both the physical structure and the connection to help him calm down and focus his attention on a more soothing level,
being ever mindful that because the child’s whole system is overstimulated and reactive, it is best not to insist on face to face contact but use body contact, which is less intense.
For an adult, co-regulation looks different, but the same underlying principle applies. You have to find a way to transmit to them that you feel them on a physiologic level. For example, your client comes in agitated and upset. Their face is red and creased with worry, their shoulders are hunched, they are speaking in a hurried tone and their breath is shallow. Your first step is to let them know you’ve registered their distress. You might reflect their facial expression in yours and say “Ohhh, ohhh, wow, this has been a tough day” in a resonant, rhythmic voice. “Yeah, yeah”, you nod in rhythm to their distressed cadence. You offer intense eye contact to let them know “I hear you”. Then you might offer them a glass of water or some hot tea. You might offer to sit near them and put your hand on their back or place some heavy pillows in their lap. Once you begin to have their attention, you would offer to take some deep breaths together and count as they inhale and exhale. You may then see a softening in their face as they begin to feel more presence. Now you smile warmly, looking with tender eyes to say “It’s ok, you’re not alone. We are here together.”
This is what I mean by co-regulate to connect. It is a basic flow of energy between two people that forms the basis of safety, trust and engagement with the other. It all starts here…
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