Let’s Talk About… Co-regulation in children with ADHD and Autism

When it comes to children and young people with ADHD and Autism, our regulation means co-regulation with our young person and self-regulation for them.

Watch my video, where I talk about co-regulation in children with ADHD and Autism

Let me explain in a little more written detail if that’s easier for you…

Talking to other parents who have a young person who is Autistic or ADHD, the one thing I hear more often than any other is ‘they struggle to regulate their emotions’.

I felt the same way with my son when we would experience the BIG emotions, over seemingly small issues, and the behaviour which accompanied them.

It was exhausting, feeling like he moved from one emotional episode to another, taking us all along on a very bumpy ride.  In between we walked on eggshells, never quite sure what the next trigger would be.

We tried soothing, ignoring, firm consequences and everything else we could think of to enable him to regulate himself and learn to cope with various environments and situations, which we thought were entirely age-appropriate.

But we didn’t really understand… that his neurodivergent brain was developmentally less mature, his executive function and regulation skills were not as developed as those of his peers.  We also didn’t understand that teaching him regulation skills was not what his body and brain needed in order to be able to self-regulate.

What he, and all other children, teens and young adults need, is co-regulation with us, to learn self-regulation – creating a felt sense of safety, with our nervous system, for theirs.

They need us, as a safe adult, to bring our regulated nervous system to their dysregulation, over and over and over again … until their frontal lobe is fully developed, which neuroscience is teaching us is only probably in their mid 20’s, at the earliest.  Again this is individual and some ND brains may take a few years more than that.

Being regulated ourselves doesn’t mean dismissing our emotions or hiding them from our young person. It doesn’t mean being constantly calm either. But it does mean being able to calm ourselves enough to help our young person to feel safe when they are dysregulated, safe to express and to feel their emotions, knowing they will also return to a feeling of calm.

This means regulating ourselves, both in the moment when they, and very probably, we, are triggered- this may mean we have to take a few deep breaths or a moment to compose ourselves – but it also means finding a way to process and express our emotions consciously on an ongoing basis, with compassion and sensitivity. So that we are able return to that feeling of calm when we need to.

To do this, we have to prioritise our wellbeing and balance, so that we can be the regulated nervous system that our child or teen needs.  Self care is certainly not selfish!  

When we are able to support our own regulation, then we can co-regulate with our young person, and help them develop the skills to self-regulate too.