Co-Regulation with ChildrenJul 10, 2023
“A dysregulated adult will never regulate a dysregulated child” - Dr. Bruce Perry
In infancy the areas of the brain that govern self-regulation have not developed sufficiently for the infant to come out of stress on their own. The human infant is one of the most helpless animals on the planet, as they are 100% reliant on their caregivers for survival. An infant cannot even scratch their own itch, let alone regulate their emotions.
The child's nervous system regulates out of stress and back to calm via co-regulation with the caregivers by touch, eye contact, soothing, and resonance with an adult's nervous system.
When co-regulation is repeated, the child's nervous system begins to learn how to come out of stress via this resonance.
This process of contraction and expansion of stress and relaxation is what builds the foundations for a healthy nervous system, one that can experience stress and regulate on its own without the need of external substances or behaviour in adulthood.
If this co-regulation does not happen for a child, then each time the child is left on their own to deal with it the stress accumulates, and will result in chronic stress and a survival physiology stuck in the on position.
When left alone to cope with stress an infant firstly moves through the sympathetic branch of the nervous system, into the Fight or Flight response. Then if the need for co-regulation continues to go unmet, their system will move into the parasympathetic (dorsal branch) of the nervous system. This will result in a deep Freeze response, and if repeated this Freeze state will become chronic and stuck. It is at this point caregivers will often say “oh good the child has self-soothed” when really, they have become frozen and dissociated.
This results in a nervous system that is developmentally arrested and unable to self-regulate, the personality and physiology then becomes oriented around survival rather than connection.
The process of co-regulating and soothing our children is hardwired into us. It is instinctual to help our children to feel held when they are in distress, though as a culture we have forced ourselves to disconnect from this impulse due to either our own trauma or advice from professionals.
Regulation to me is the process of coming in and out of stress. Regulation includes stress, and is the body's natural flux of stress and relax, contract and expand. It is a process which is not static, nor a particular state but is the very alive and visceral ebb and flow between all states.
This ebb and flow imprints the child's nervous system and teaches it how to come in and out of stress through transmission/resonance/osmosis, hence the child's system learns to self-regulate via co-regulation.
A child’s ventral branch of the vagus nerve, which governs social engagement and connection is not developed early on. It is through repeated experiences and exposure to a healthy adult that their capacity to socially engage with safety and connection is grown.
Each time we co-regulate with a child, this ventral branch is nurtured. Eventually through these repeated experiences a child’s physiology will be dominated by connection and engagement, rather than by survival.
Dysregulated is the arrest of this flux, getting stuck in stress without the ability to move out of it. Ideally a nervous system self regulates and needs no interventions or techniques in order to flow naturally in and out of stress, but as we are healing, we will need to discharge the stored stress and adopt certain practices and techniques to re-establish that flow.
A dysregulated pattern also imprints on the child's nervous system in the same way. If we are stuck in contraction/stress and our system does not know how to come out of it, that same stress is imprinted onto the child, as well as the adapted coping strategies.
A regulated nervous system does not require us to be in any specific state, emotional or otherwise, nor does it mean we are always calm. Regulation is this natural process of contraction and expansion.
A healthy nervous system is a system that can regulate itself efficiently by coming in and out of stress and moving through all the states and emotions without getting stuck.
Stress, relax, stress, relax, stress, relax is the pulsating heart beat of the universe......
Ideally our nervous system learns this through thousands of co-regulation experiences with our caregivers in infancy, which lays a ground level of basic trust and safety in the body, enabling it to discharge the contracted energy without being inhibited in the process. However, this is often not the case as the parent's nervous system is often stuck in a stressed state.
When this co-regulation doesn't happen in infancy, or we suffer an acute trauma which shocks the system and throws the regulation process out, then the nervous system is arrested in its ability to move in and out of stress efficiently. Resulting in a dysregulated system that gets stuck in different responses and doesn't metabolise emotional states.
Essentially regulation is the ability to move up and down the stress scale with fluidity, to rise into stress, and relax back down with ease, like a wave rising up and then crashing back into the ocean.
It does not mean being in a calm state all the time, but rather the ability for the body to be able to experience stressful states and come back to homeostasis naturally. Trauma, complex or otherwise affects the body's ability to do this.
It comes back to how parents deal with their own stress. This is often an automatic and unconscious process which they adopted from their parents. We can 'do' all the right things, but without working with our own stress patterns we will still transmit them unconsciously to our children.
Learning to look after our own internal landscape and nervous system is how we best help our children look after theirs.
Peace & Blessing,
Matt Kay (Co-Creator of Embodied Processing)