As part of the primary caregiver bond, we are tasked with the growth and development of our children. This includes the development of their nervous system. Whenever our children are unregulated, they seek comfort and reassurance from us. When working effectively, our calm nervous systems regulate our children's unregulated ones. Our children will use this biological system throughout their childhood, adolescence and into adulthood. In order for us to be able to complete this process effectively for both the child and ourselves, we as adults must be able to self-regulate, so we can lead and anchor the process.
This is all good in theory. Let's talk about a real life situation. Nancy has a young boy, just shy of two. Yesterday he was looking to her to help regulate his experience. He wanted a toy and he only got to use it after his brother was finished. This was upsetting enough that Ned was unable to regulate his nervous system. Nancy noticed his cues and tried to meet his needs, but only partially succeeded. She realised this when she got home as Ned escalated again. Ned wanted to play in the front yard, and Nancy didn't have time for that to happen. Ned's response escalated beyond what was normal for him when he was not able to do something he wanted. When we were debriefing, we identified that this is because Ned's stress hadn't discharged fully after wanting the toy he had to wait for. After several more escalations over small things (wanting extra milk, not wanting a nappy change), Ned was on the floor, face-down, wailing. Nancy had misjudged the depth of Ned's needs, and her usual go-to strategies at each point, weren't working. So Ned kept escalating as a way to communicate that his needs still weren't being met. Despite her best intentions.
In very young children this will happen overtly. You will hear their wailing and notice their behavioural cues such as arms flapping and faces going red and panicked. Meet their needs, and the cues stop. This isn’t manipulation, this is simple cause and effect. Whenever you are unable to meet a child’s needs, for whatever reason, they will escalate as a way to ‘call’ you to come and help them regulate. For young children this will include the crying trajectory, small cry > wail > sobbing > not-able-to-catch a breath (this is where the nervous system is highly activated). Escalate past this point without a supportive intervention, and the immature nervous system will try to manage itself. One way is a physical reaction – you might see the nervous system somaticise through the child coming out in hives or vomiting. Somaticising is when the body takes stress and attempts to shift it through the physical body. Another choice the immature system has is to move into fight, flight or freeze mode. Neither of these support the child to learn to self-regulate by using the primary caregiver in the way that they are biologically wired to do.
Here are some tips for you to support the constructive development of your child’s nervous system:
1. Never dismiss, shame or belittle a child for having feelings. They are not ‘sooky’ or ‘attention seeking’. They have an in-built need for their primary caregiver to help them regulate when their systems are too immature to be able to do it themselves. This role will be yours until they are in early adulthood. They are using their behaviours to ‘ask’ you for help. As soon as your perception of these behaviours changes to be one where you see it as a signal for your assistance, you will notice your kindness and empathy increase.
2. Regulation requires you to be open to their feelings and remain calm in the face of your own overwhelm. They are little people. To them we are the big brave adults that keep them safe. We must act honourably with this power. We must rise to each and every occasion as best we can.
3. Until their need is met, you will have a child who continues to escalate at every chance. Ever had an afternoon where you blame your child for being ‘annoying, melodramatic, irritating’ and responded to them by withdrawing, sending them to their bedroom, or using sarcasm? Your child is communicating a need for help. They are trying to release their pent up emotions. They need calm boundaries, delivered in a constructive and loving/understanding way, so that they have a big emotional discharge in the safety of your care.
4. During the emotional discharge, your role is to soothe without words, observe and be open for when they are ready to reconnect with you and tap back into your parent/child connection. They will be tired and spent. Your role is to be open to this connection and to feel proud you have supported this process.
5. After the emotional discharge, your child will return to ‘normal’. They will find/have found their equilibrium quickly and the escalations will stop, as their needs have been met.
As current primary care givers, most of us haven’t had the fortune to have been supported in this way by our own parents. This usually results in us finding it tricky for us to manage the process of supporting our children. Usually we become overwhelmed with grief/anger that we misdirect at our children. Truthfully, it is likely that we never received this level of care and compassion. When this happens for you, and it likely will, please do not take these feelings out on your child. Dig deep and continue to support and keep your connection open to your child.
After the emotional storm has passed, use a trusted adult to debrief your feelings with. You will likely need to complete a version of what you have supported your child through. Be kind to yourself and give yourself the care that you need and deserve.
How do you help your child self regulate?