Why is interoception & co-regulation important to being able to self-regulate? I get asked this quite often when I introduce families and professionals to these concepts. For more than a decade I’d worked with children and families and used programs such as the Zones of Regulation, sensory profiles, and sensory diets while working on increasing the child’s ability to self-regulate. It wasn’t until I had my own children that I learned and understood the importance of interoception and co-regulation. It was just never introduced in the trainings or literature I read.
Interoception is our 8th sense and is our awareness of our internal states, everything from emotions to hunger, thirst, the feeling of full, the urge to go to the toilet etc, Co-regulation is when we as the adults (primary care givers, teachers or professionals) have a trusting relationship with the child (or student) and while they are experiencing dysregulation, we remain their supportive, calming presence. Through this space we support their nervous system to regulate with us, thus co-regulation. A child (or person) cannot successfully self-regulate if they have not had successful co-regulation experiences first. Poor interoceptive awareness leads to understanding concepts intellectually without being able to practically apply the strategies to oneself.
While I was operating as a co-regulator from as a professional, as a parent to two Neurodivergent children, doing this became harder to do as my self-care needs were not being met and my kids’ needs were increasing.
My calm, peaceful and fun household began to spiral into one that was in a constant state or reactive and explosive emotional dysregulation (including physical and verbal aggression from my children) I began to research and learn more so I could best support my family’s needs. The first step was my self-care which I began to address in multiple ways. Part of this was receiving my own diagnoses as an Autistic and ADHD individual which led to better understanding, acceptance and support of myself and my needs. Then I was led to learn about interoception and co-regulation.
My husband and I both began to re-focus on being the co-regulators our children needed while we both focused on meeting our own needs and filling our own cups so we would be ok. We had learnt that our children do not benefit if we sacrifice everything for them to our detriment. In order for us to be able to support our children in the way they needed, WE first needed to be regulated and ok to do so. If we were both home and one of us recognised the other was beginning to get dysregulated ourselves, we would tag-team and prompt the other to go for a walk or head outside to get some fresh air. We also allowed each other the time and space to have time without the children. While I realise this is not a viable solution for many, I have worked with many families who have successfully been able to implement this through using support workers funded by the NDIS.
We also began to learn more about interoception, interoceptive awareness and how we could support our children and increase their knowledge in this area. From a very young age one of my children could tell you they were mad/angry however all attempts to get them to access their strategies to implement or to recognise they were approaching that dysregulated state failed to work. When I learnt about interoceptive awareness I began to see why. While my child could recognise when they were in that state and about to tip over into full blown meltdown and complete dysregulation, they were not able to recognise their internal body signals that they were beginning to become dysregulated. While we’d discussed these body signals and internal experiences at length, the information wasn’t connecting to their internal experience. Through our OT and researching the concept we were able to support our children to begin develop their interceptive awareness in the different areas they each needed.
This is a long term process, it doesn’t happen overnight, however we have and we continue to chip away at it each day and some days allow for more noticing, practice, experiencing and mindfulness leading to their interoceptive awareness increasing.
On this long term journey with my children, supporting them to grow fully into who they are, I am honoured to be witness first hand to these developing moments of insight, self-awareness and understanding of self. Today was a perfect example and provided me with a reminder of why we have shifted our focus to co-regulation,
interoceptive awareness and my child’s personal growth in this area. My two children were playing together and one said they needed a break as they were becoming overloaded. The other child asked to please continue. When the play wasn’t continued, they came to me upset but calm. They told me that they needed more playing time with someone. When I asked for clarification, they said, that they need more playing time with people (1:1) than others do. That they had just played with their sibling, but it wasn’t quite enough playing time to meet their needs. They proceeded to ask me to play. I sat for a moment in proud silence and easily could have wept with joy. However, I did not. I pointed out to them how awesome it was that they recognised that about themselves and that they were able to peacefully end that interaction and come to me and ask for the support they needed in a calm and safe way. In the end they too said they were proud that that had occurred. It is important when we are blessed with these moments ofinsight from our children, that we help them connect that to things they have been working on and to help them sit in that feeling and space for a bit longer. We ended up playing together and now once again, both my children are currently engaged in their own activity and I’m here sharing this with you.
While this experience is not an all the time, everyday occurrence for my children, as we implement strategies to facilitate co-regulation and interoceptive awareness along with ensuring both my husband and I get our self- care needs meet at best as we can, these moments of peace and contentment in our house are slowly increasing and I’m feeling the hope again of a future for them where self-regulation is a part of their everyday experience.
About Christina Keeble
Christina began her career as a special education teacher with a background in psychology and now supports individuals, families, schools and professionals to understand the Neurodivergent lived perspective.