Investment Parenting with Co-Regulation

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.It's Can't

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:

  1. 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)
  2. 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.
  3. 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!

The Will

The will is a powerful force. It leads the way, commands behavior, it makes kingdoms rise and fall.

A strong willed child is disobedient, hard to get along with, tries to take the reigns at every turn. At least that is the philosophy I learned in my early parenting, until I was introduced to Charlotte Mason’s writing. From her I learned that the child I just described is weak willed. He has difficulty directing his will. His flesh is in control. This is the child that cannot sit and stay on task, does not do what you ask immediately but instead argues and fusses at any request. His will is weak.

“The will is the controller of the passions and emotions, the
director of the desires, the ruler of the appetites” (Vol. 1, p. 319).- Charlotte Mason

Earlier today, I overheard one of my children instructing his father on how to discipline him.

“Dad, don’t do that! You can’t do that! So, what did I do? I don’t get it! What’s the big deal?” He did get it. He knew the what the problem was. He knew he had name called, been disrespectful and disobedient. He didn’t want to pay the piper. His will was weak. He challenged authority because he struggles with having authority over himself.

A child with a weak will is undisciplined. Outer discipline trains for inner discipline. An undisciplined child lives by the “pleasure principle”. He may be willing to do something if it is fun or immediately rewarding. This is exhausting and achieves no character or significant learning in the child. (Ruth Beechik)

A weak willed child only does a task if he feels like doing it. He is likely to freeze frame when the parent leaves the room because he has no inner resolution to complete the task. This a fifteen minute bedroom cleaning session can turn into hours of agony for the parent. This same child will give into his appetites- eating an entire bag of cookies, stealing sugary sweets from his siblings and lying about it, chowing down on a whole box of granola bars, etc…

“The passions, the desires, the appetites, are there
already, and the will gathers force and vigour only as it is
exercised in the repression and direction of these” (Vol. 1,
p. 319).- Charlotte Mason

So, what is to be done to strengthen resolve and point the will in the right direction?

Watch for Part II of The Will!


Yesterday, I was making Rafal’s school-day schedule. His schedule is important. If he doesn’t have it, he freaks out, sometimes even with it, he does.
We planned to do some yard work. Jerry told the kids to work on some school work until he was ready to work outside.
Rafal took one look at his list and said, “What, I can’t do all of this today! I thought we were going to work outside. Why do I have to do all of this?”

“Because, it’s a good day,” replied Jerry.

“We’ll do some of the schoolwork after the yard work,” I said with a smile.

Rafal’s response? Anger. Indignation-one of his vocab words for this week.

He had finished his Bible study, so I got out his math. He suddenly forgot how to find common denominators, which we had been working on for two weeks. Not to mention, it is review from last year.

He slammed things around and said, “I have no clue how to do this!” He closed his math book and said, “I just won’t do it.”

Ross Greene, author of The Explosive Child, argues that outbursts “arise from developmental delays in three areas: flexibility, frustration tolerance, and problem solving.” He calls them “lagging skills”. When a child doesn’t know how to be flexible, he cannot adjust to changes in schedule. A change can send him into an angry tizzy.

Rafal’s reaction to the schedule change (even though he had a blast raking/blowing leaves) was anger. The anger prevented him from remembering a math skill. What he really was saying through his outburst was, “I am not flexible. I don’t know how to handle this change in my schedule. I don’t know what to do.”

Many children have this inflexibility issue, some call it inability to change gears, or wanting to control the environment, whatever you call it, the anger can cause problems for the whole family. Children born prematurely, raised in an orphanage for a period of time, FAS or RAD children may have this “lagging skill”. It cannot be lectured out of existence. I know, I’ve tried logic, it doesn’t work.

The solution? Patience. I have to work on not getting frustrated myself-not being flexible to his inflexibility! Second, I have to help him work on this skill. He has made progress. Yesterday, he slammed shut a math book. A year ago, he would have run off into the woods behind our house and hid.

This afternoon, I talked to him about trying counting to five after he was asked a question that would alter his schedule. For instance,when we were out doing yard work, he had the broom. Hunter asked for it ‘for a sec’ to finish the remnant of a pile on the sidewalk. Rafal went crazy yelling “no” and he grabbed a log from the firewood stack and launched it at Hunter. Okay, not so great at the flexibility or the problem solving. After he calmed down, we talked about his exaggerated reaction and how the counting could help.

“Would letting Hunter use the broom for thirty seconds kill you or hurt you?”



“Right, that it why it is better to count and think before hurling a log at someone.”

He laughed. Progress.