Susie, a friend of mine (plus foster and adoptive Mom), shared a conundrum she had recently while teaching four-year-olds during Sunday school class. A new little one melted down and hid under the table. She had no special instructions for the little one and wasn’t sure how to handle it. You see, there is a big difference between disobedience and a reaction based on past trauma. Turns out the little one was a foster child who was placed in the home just the night before. Susie would have been better equipped to help him if she had only known. I could do a whole post on taking a fresh foster or adoptive placement to church, but I’ll save that for another day. I’d like to focus on trauma and its effect on self-regulation.
The Signature of Trauma
Trauma produces children from hard places. Children from had places have altered brain development. The main outwards sign of past trauma is what we often refer to as “bad behavior” or the inability to self regulate (if you want it to sound more science-y and less critical). The truth is, when it comes to behavior, we must remember that every behavior expresses a need.
When it comes to a child from hard places ability to self-regulate, it’s CAN’T not WON’T. In simple plain language that means, he cannot calm himself. He can’t help but be overwhelmed to the point that he is either hiding under the table (flight), not responding to what you are asking of him (freeze) or running away from the situation (flight). He CAN’T. Not physically able. Not emotionally able. In this scenario, the adult must take the reins and help the child by co-regulating. Co-regulation helps a child develop a new pattern for stress regulation.
“The early developing right brain, where attachments develop, is largely dominant during the first three years of life (Schore, 2003). It contains the initial and lasting template for stress regulation. Revisions to this template will require intentional efforts.”-Deborah Gray, Nurturing Adoption
What Does Co-regulation Look Like?
Think of a two year old being tired and falling on the floor having a meltdown because she doesn’t want to take a nap. Clearly, she needs one, so Mom takes control of the situation. Mom takes the little one to her room and reads her a story and rocks her to sleep. She takes a nap. Mom is co-regulating because unless you have a rare toddler, she is not going to recognize her need for a nap and put herself down for one.
Filling in the Gaps of Missed Co-Regulation
With a child from a hard place, no matter what their age and size, we must co-regulate when they cannot. A twelve year old who cannot recognize his body’s signals to eat or drink, must be provided with a snack and water every two hours or he will enter the flight, fight or freeze zone. A nine year old who has sensory processing issues may lose the ability to voice his need to escape the noise and over stimulation of a loud birthday party. Mom and Dad must be watching for cues and either leave the party or take the child to a quieter place. It’s important to remember that a child from a hard place is emotionally at least half his physical age, sometimes more. His regulation skills may be that of a two year old while he is teen size.
The good news is, as we connect and co-regulate, we change the brain chemistry, wiring and development. Scientists tell us that relationships and experience shape the brain. Think of a developing brain like a multi-storied house under construction. At birth the downstairs brain is developed. This is the part that tells the child when to breath and keeps the functions of the body on track. This is also where survival mode resides, the fight, flight or freeze mechanisms. The upstairs brain is the higher functions of the brain. It is more sophisticated and houses reasoning, speech, regulation of emotions, the ability to be flexible and adaptable. Trauma skews the wiring of the brain. Trauma triggers the amygdala, the watchdog of the body. If the brain stays in this state too long, it rewires to stay stuck in fight, flight or freeze. Chronic stress takes a heavy toll on the prefrontal cortex. It is involved in impulses, aggression, anxiety, decisions, changing gears and self-regulation.
At this point, you may be thinking, I thought you said there was hope. There is! The Hebbian Principle says –what fires together, wires together. That is the more you experience something, the more your wires go that direction. So, how do we rewire a child’s brain that is stuck downstairs in the survival (fight, flight, freeze)? With co-regulation and fresh new experiences that show him he can trust us. We call this felt safety. When a child feels safe, his adrenals calm, he produces less cortisol and he is able to function in his upstairs brain.
I know, I feel like this is all over the place, so let me end with three reminders.
If you are parenting a child or teen from a hard place:
- Expect to co-regulate a lot more than your peers with bio children (who aren’t from hard places, because some are). Don’t base your expectation of whether you need to help them regulate on their physical age and size. “Many children who do not have early experiences of proper care also lack proper physiological and emotional regulation. This is because both of these regulation systems are developed through an attachment relationship.” (Nurturing Adoptions)
- Make sure your children feel safe. It’s not about really being safe. It’s about feeling safe. If they feel safer with a light on, not going to the noisy party, staying near you at a function, comply, don’t complain.
- Keep the positive, connecting experiences coming. “The brain is also “experience-expectant.” We come hard wired for connection. For eye contact, touch, playful interactions and co-regulation.These fill up the kid’s emotional tank and help their brains rewire. Blow bubbles. Ride bikes together. Make cookies and eat them. Read a favorite book fifty times. Swim with them, don’t just watch them swim. Hike with them. Take the time to invest positive experiences. This is investment parenting. Just a note -this practice applies to teens as well. If you are filling in the gaps of missed co-regulation, an older teen may still want you to watch them jump on the trampoline, ride bikes with him, play board games, or watch movies. Many teens from hard places may have no interest in what their peers are doing and want to hang out with Mom and Dad.
If you see your children struggling with regulation, which parts of this article resonated with you? Are you willing to try to do a few things differently? If you do, please share your stories! I’d love to hear from you!