When an infant’s needs are met in a sensitive, responsive, timely and predictable way, the infant never spends too much time in distress because whenever the infant / child is distressed, the parent responds and the distress is ended. This scenario allows the child to spend most of his life in a contented way. When an infant or child too often is separated from his parent, or frightened, injured, hungry or cold, the infant / child experiences too much distress. In other words, the child’s attachment system was frequently activated to try to get the parent to meet his needs and the parent did not. This scenario may have long-term consequences to the child’s regulatory systems; the child may become too easily distressed or not distressed enough. Failure to thrive infants give up on activating their attachment system because that behaviour was ineffective in getting their needs met. Other children may remain easily dysregulated. The role of the parent is to respond to attachment behaviours before the child becomes distressed; or if the child is already easily dysregulated, the parent will need to create an environment that will facilitate low levels of distress. Let’s break this down a bit.
The Essentials of Regulation:
- Sensory Regulation: This includes information coming into the brain from the five senses, body position in space and body movement.
- Physiological Regulation: This includes heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, sleep, eating and excreting, muscle tone, breathing
- Emotional Regulation: This is the ability to recognise emotions as they are experienced and to effectively express, or as needed control, emotions such as happiness, excitement, fear, sadness, and anger.
- Behavioural Regulation: This means acting with intention. When regulated, children act with intention while dysregulated children, are out of their own control. Often, children are somewhere in between. Being regulated allows a child to have behaviour that is self- directed with intention or that is responsive and contingent to others and the environment.
- Cognitive regulation: This is the ability to direct attention. As children get older, it includes the ability to self-reflect (think about thinking, think about one’s experiences). Self-reflection is needed to self-regulate.
Children need to be in a regulated state to feel comfortable and to be able to learn. (Well, some of us like roller coasters and scary movies: dysregulation that we can control.) The essential task of parenting is to help your child remain regulated; that means starting with Sensory Regulation, moving through Physiological Regulation to Emotional Regulation. Only when a child is regulated in these three areas, and only then, can he regulate his behaviour and his cognitions.
A Brief List of Regulating and Dysregulating Experiences
(however every child is unique in terms of what is up or down regulating)
Music, singing, soft lighting, rocking, soft colours, soft fabrics, silky fabrics, warmth, simple visuals (e.g. park), massage, hugging just right, favourite comfort foods, touch by a trusted parent, water play and swimming (deep pressure), clay, sand play
Harsh sounds, loud sounds, harsh lighting, too many sounds, too many visuals (e.g. downtown street) , noxious smells, noxious tastes, touch that is too light or too deep, movement that is uncomfortable, pain, too cold, too hot, not being touched, neglect
Walking, rocking with parent, sleeping well, eating well, exercising lots, co-breathing (parent models yoga breathing) close body contact with trusted parent
poor sleep, poor diet (body is always activated to find more food), illness, inadequate exercise, abuse
Face to face gaze with empathic, trusted parent, shared joy,
being enjoyed, feeling joy,
being re-regulated by parent when upset
Parent who is frightening
Parent who is frightened
Separation from attachment figures, being alone
Most gross motor rhythmic activities, walking, skipping, drumming, dancing, paddling, swimming
Limits and rules
Parent who is harming, neglecting, unpredictable or inconsistently available. Loss of loved ones and attachment figures. Societal violence (exposure to crime)
Knowing one is safe, knowing one is loved and valued, knowing one belongs, knowing one is secure in these things.
Routines, rituals, predictability, organization of space and materials
Threat of pain, threat of isolation, threat of withdrawal of basic needs, threats to attachment figures and other loved ones, threats to safety and security,
Chaos, clutter, disorganization
Only a regulated parent can co-regulate a dysregulated child
Affect and Arousal Regulation: A visual
The parent’s task is to keep his child in the box and then eventually teach the child how to do that for himself.