Nearly every child that walks through my door has difficulties with regulation. (I would say 100% but I am not an absolute kind of gal.)
According to the American Psychological Association emotional regulation is the ability of an individual to modulate an emotion or set of emotions. (Check out my 4 truths about emotional regulation HERE! )
Due to early traumatic life experiences, genetics, and/or the attachment relationship most of the young people that come into my office are struggling with their gas pedal.
Some are pressing down hard on the gas leading to high intensity of emotion (sympathetic nervous system activation with increased heart rate and breathing, upset stomachs, sweating, etc.). These are the kids that are angry, throwing things, tantruming, having panic episodes, or crying.
Other kids are slamming on the breaks or putting themselves in park. These are the kids that are in their parasympathetic nervous system and might be hypoaroused where they are not having a desire to do anything, isolating, and/or are under the covers.
Both are having trouble with their nervous system regulation triggering the fight or flight response. Both sets of responses mean young people’s bodies and nervous systems are deeming something in their environment as unsafe or dangerous.
And this whole reaction? Well it is out of our conscious awareness. We don’t choose fight or flight - our bodies prepare us for action when we are in danger.
Dr. Dan Siegel calls our optimal zone of nervous system arousal our “Window of Tolerance”. Here we are regulated, able to move through emotions, able to access higher levels of thinking like reason and logic, are able to be mindful, and are able to be connected to our bodies and sense of self.
And what we know is that with higher levels of trauma and stress we are triggered more often by smaller stimuli. Or more simply - trauma and chronic stress shrink our window of tolerance.
Lisa Dion identifies four threats to the nervous system in her book Aggression in Play Therapy. They are:
When we look at this list we can begin to understand why transitions, attempting to hide things from children, or expecting things from children that they are not able to successfully achieve can be deemed scary, threatening, and dangerous. The child’s amygdala deems these incidents as threatening and scary as if there were a lion in the room. The nervous system reacts the same exact way.
When we go further and think about the filing and storing of trauma experiences we can further understand dysregulation. We know that “neurons that fire together wire together”. This means that in traumatic experiences stimuli that are not connected with trauma can be encoded and stored within the trauma memory and can be an immediate cue for danger. AND it is likely outside the child’s conscious awareness.
They child will not be able to tell you that a specific sound, smell, taste, expression, or body position was present during a trauma. And at the same time their body is remembering and will start to become dysregulated and go into a fight/fight response. The body will see this stimuli just as threatening or dangerous as the initial trauma.
As therapists we often hear parents say that moods shifted “out of nowhere” or comment that the child was having a great day and then something shifted. It is likely that in all of the sensory data that is coming into their bodies. I talk HERE about how our bodies process anywhere from 11 million up to billions of sensory bits of data per second, but only 40-50 bits are conscious.
When we look at this information it makes sense that a child can become easily triggered and it might not make sense to the child or the parent.
Once we can understand the neuroscientific principles that are underlying emotional regulation and dysregulation we can begin to support parents and children in widening the window of tolerance and their ability to tolerate distress!
Want to learn more about Play Therapy and the neuroscience of regulation? Check out this training HERE!
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I'm Ann Meehan, an LPCC, RPT-S, and EMDR Consultant. I help other therapists grow in their passions as play therapists, trauma therapists,and child and adolescent therapists.