Co-regulation is the process of holding space for another person while they are dysregulated. You might also hear me refer to it as putting a flipped lid back on, or taming a tantrum. In order to effectively co-regulate, we first have to acknowledge how the other person is feeling. This means that you may need to recognize that their experience is different from your own.
A variety of programs have been created to teach the skills of co-regulation to children. Some
curricula have different categories of experiences that would ‘help’ people understand how big their reaction should be. For example, a glitch might be if someone bumps you in the hallway or if your paper falls off of your desk, while a huge deal might be a broken bone.
The trouble with these categories is that they don’t necessarily ring true for everyone. To me, it’s no big deal if you bump into me while walking in the hallway. But to someone else, that unexpected touch is enough to send their tactile system into overdrive. That unexpected touch is dysregulating and is cause for crying, yelling, and even pushing. It really is a big deal.
"In order to empathize with someone’s experience you must be willing to believe them as they see it and not how you imagine their experience to be."
Perspective taking has caused a shift in my own thinking and approach. Through neurodiversity affirming research, I have learned that dictating a reaction on someone is harmful. Brene Brown talks about the power of empathy, and how, to truly be empathetic you must believe the other person’s experience as they describe it. By telling another person that their painful experience was actually, ‘no big deal,’ we are attempting to convince them that their reality is not the truth.
Instead of categorizing and persuading, focus on learning more about one another and building understanding. Talk about what is comfortable and uncomfortable to you to gain
insight into other people's perspectives. Here are some of my favourite comfortable/uncomfortable scenarios:
Walking barefoot on the grass;
Cruising the mall on Boxing Day;
Someone massaging your scalp;
Shopping at Bath and Body Works;
Eating a warhead.
Another tool for building empathy is talking about expected versus unexpected events and reactions. When things go as we expect them to, we tend to stay in a more regulated headspace. On the flipside, when something unexpected occurs, we’re probably going to become dysregulated. As long as the teacher follows the picture schedule for the day, I’ll be okay. If a pipe leaks in the gymnasium and we don’t get to have Phys Ed, I’m going to feel upset.
Advocating for our specific sensory needs is an important part of co-regulation. If you are sensitive to sound, do you let your partner know that their voice is too loud, or that the television in the background is making it difficult for you to concentrate? When the classroom teacher asks you to put on the firefighter costume during play, are you able to tell her that the scratchy material causes your skin to hurt? Communicating our sensory and emotional needs is key to a respectful relationship.
The next time you are around a dysregulated person, remember - whatever happened to dysregulate them was a big deal. Validate, then co-regulate.