Trauma in Babies and Young Children: Types of Regulation and Why It’s Important
Types of Regulation
Regulation is a fancy way of saying getting calm and staying calm. There are three types of regulation:
Dysregulation is the opposite of calm and can be mild, moderate, or severe. Think of when youre infant is crying because he/she is hungry and wants to be fed – your baby is mildly to moderately dysregulated. Now think about when your baby is caught in that awful breathless crying where there is silence for a second or two – in this example, your baby is extremely dysregulated and there is a really good chance that you are too! This would be co-dysregulation – you work off each other.
Self-regulation is the ability to calm yourself down and stay calm. People use healthy (adaptive) and unhealthy (maladaptive) ways to do this. When adaptive self-regulation skills are utilized, it is a very sophisticated, mature and practiced skill. When maladaptive self-regulation skills are used, the person will calm but the technique they used to calm themselves down will usually lead to other problems; think about yelling, name calling, throwing or hitting in a child. Or, in an adult, things such as drug use, drinking, excessive spending, etc. They work in the moment but have negative consequences.
BABIES AND YOUNG CHILDREN DO NOT YET HAVE THE ABILITY TO SELF-REGULATE! Young children learn to self-regulate through co-regulation with an adult.
Co-regulation is the reciprocal interaction between two people, in this case, a parent and child, where the parent can help a child experience, tolerate and, move through their emotions and calm down. This is the only way a baby or very young child can ‘regulate’ and avoid impairment in their attachment or internalized sense of self. Babies and littles always need help from their trusted adult to get and stay calm.
Why is regulation so important?
Regulation is important because it allows the child to be present to what they are doing, focus, learn new things, and enjoy their relationships.
All babies and children need to feel that their environment and relationships are reliable, predictable and, safe. When children feel safe their nervous system is regulated and when the nervous system is regulated, their emotions are positive ones and their behaviors (actions) are calm. As babies develop into children with more complex emotions and a greater need to exercise control (say ‘no’ or put their own shoes on, etc.), they are more likely to have dysregulated behavior as their wants and needs that are developmentally typical and appropriate come into conflict with yours (not wanting to hold your hand in the parking lot vs having to hold your hand for safety or wanting to sleep in your bed rather than their own.)
When a child is dysregulated they need help getting calm so they can feel better. When they feel better, their behavior is calmer and that’s good for babies and parents.
A quick explanation of how the brain is involved in regulation
This is a very simplified explanation of how the brain works and is based on Dr. Daniel Siegel’s work.
The brain has two parts, a feeling part and a thinking part. Both parts of the brain must work together for a person to be regulated. Its as if the thinking brain talks to the emotional brain and helps keep the emotions in check so they don’t get too big (dysregulated). When the emotions get really big and the thinking brain gets overwhelmed, it disconnects from the emotional brain, making it very hard or impossible to keep the emotions under control. When the emotions are out of control they lead to disruptive behaviors that help the child express themselves (tantrums) but get in the way of engaging in the world around them in a productive and enjoyable way.
This next bit of information is helpful in further understanding why children dysregulate – the emotional brain is fully developed at birth and ready to do its job but the thinking brain is not fully developed and functional until at least the mid 20’s! So not only do children have big emotions but they don’t yet have a thinking brain capable of managing those big emotions and it will be many, many, many years before they do (sigh!).
Learning that Feelings Come and Feelings Go
It is our job as parents and caregivers to ‘co-regulate’ with our children to help them learn how to calm down. Children need to learn how to feel their feelings, know that feelings come, and feelings go, and no uncomfortable feeling lasts forever, tolerate the difficult feelings and experience the rise and fall of emotions in order to come to understand that even when they feel terrible, they will, return to calm again. Learning you can get through a difficult feeling without having to act out is an important emotional (and social) skill to develop and is necessary for healthy and satisfying relationships.
How Regulation is Effected by Trauma
When babies or children have experienced traumatic events (NICU, caregivers with mental health problems, abuse, etc.) their sense of safety in the world is impaired. This impairment gets stored in the nervous system and brain and increases the likelihood that a child will dysregulate when feeling vulnerable. Children with precognitive and preverbal trauma will need help informing their nervous system what safe feels like and how to neurobiologically trust the world and people in it. Therapy can be very helpful in supporting this healing and growth.
Check back for our next Bog post on the Polyvagal Theory and feeling emotionally safe.