The Power of Love and Relationship
Children need connection in order to feel loved, accepted, and safe. They cannot sufficiently create this on their own. They need to experience this first from the adults in their lives before they can give it to themselves. Children, especially babies, do not have the ability to "regulate" on their own.
A baby crying in a crib is communicating that he is in need of help. The baby is seeking regulation. The baby has slipped into a state of dysregulation, needing to be fed, rocked, cuddled, or have a diaper changed. The baby is incapable of shifting from this state of dysregulation to a state of regulation on his own. If the baby is not cared for, he goes into a hyper-aroused state, whereby the stress hormones excrete excessively until ultimately, the body will protect itself from creating internal damage by shutting down. The baby then stops crying and appears to have settled down.
Yet in actuality, the baby has not shifted back into a state of regulation. The baby has simply shifted from a state of active arousal to a state of passive arousal, still dysregulated at the internal level. He has been denied an interactive experience with his caregiver. He has missed the vital experience of being calmed and soothed, or regulated, by his caregiver.
This same concept is true for any child, whether in a school or home. When a child is acting out, it is a sign that the child has slipped into a state of dysregulation. If the child has not had enough past regulatory experiences of being soothed through the power of a loving relationship, the child's ability to self-regulate is insufficient to shift to a state of regulation on his own. Whether describing an infant or a 15-year-old child who is dysregulated, the role of the adult (whether it is a parent or teacher) is always to join with the child in order to help the child regulate back to a state of calm arousal.
Science is showing that essential regulatory functions occur in the right hemisphere. The right hemisphere is responsible for the processing of positive and negative affective states, such as interest, excitement, and joy, along with pain, fear, and overwhelm. The right hemisphere controls the human stress response system and cortisol secretion as well as vital functions supporting survival. When a child's experiences do not include predictability, quality care-giving, loving interactions, and safety, these functions of the right hemisphere are impaired and the ability to regulate is compromised.
When interacting with a child exhibiting difficult behaviors, look into the child's present and past experiences and you are likely to find a cycle of disruption and unpredictability. In order to help a child get back on track, it takes connecting with the child at the emotional level. This connection happens in the right brain, so it is not the words that are important. It is the facial expression, tone and volume of voice, as well as the posture, tempo, and timing of movement. It is about learning to simply be present with the child and allowing the child emotional space to process through the stress.
This is an interactive process between the adult and the child, and thus, it is imperative that the adult be in a state of regulation. If the adult is stressed out and dysregulated, the adult's ability to create a state of regulation for the child is severely compromised. Have you ever been in a store and watched a stressed-out parent instructing the child to, "Calm down. Calm down, right now!"? The words are effective words; however, the delivery of the words is far more important to consider. It is not what you say, but how you say it.
Imagine having the opportunity to sit next to Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Mother Teresa. How do you think you would feel simply sitting next to any one of these individuals who radiates pure love? Would your system automatically shift to a state of regulation? You undoubtedly would feel a sense of calm and peacefulness, even if words were not exchanged.
While this may be an extreme example, you do have the same ability to create this type of connection with a dysregulated child. This is the power of love and relationship. This is "interactive regulation." Interactive regulation is the ability to easily regulate one's emotional state through interactions with others. As the child experiences these interactions with you and through you, he will gain experiential knowledge of what it feels like to be regulated. He will have experiences of going from a state of dysregulation and upset to a state of peace and calm.
As the child experiences this interactive regulation through your relationship with him, he then learns how to self-regulate, or as science is terming it, to "autoregulate." This is the ultimate gift we can give children--to be able to self-regulate in times of stress, without others and without external measures.
Childhood is the most opportune time to accomplish this goal. Science is showing that positive emotional experiences carve permanent pathways into a child's developing neurological system. Every interaction you have with a child is an opportunity to help the child regulate, make a positive emotional connection, and literally lay down neural networks that will enhance his brain's capacity to handle stress and overwhelm later in life. Conversely, research states that if a significant amount of a child's emotional experiences are characterized by fear, then a negative and hopeless perspective becomes part of the child's personality framework.
It is important to realize these experiences influence a child far more than we once believed. In the past, it was believed that children who grow up with an abundance of experiences of distress, fear, separation, and rage simply develop bad behaviors and bad habits. We now know that it goes much deeper than this; they develop ingrained negative neurological pathways that control much of what they do.
The good news is that our brains are ever changing and ever creating new neuropathways. Neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections based on life experiences. Yet it is vital to the healing process of children that these new neuropathways are formed from emotional experiences, not intellectual or cognitive experiences.
These emotional experiences are not experiences that can be created in a therapist's office once a week for 50 minutes nor can they be created by being isolated in detention or by being suspended from school. These healing moments need to happen through the context of the adult-child relationship. It is in the moments when your child or student is most "raw" and the most dysregulated that you are being presented with an opportunity to create change and healing. It takes interacting from not just a new perspective but from an entirely new paradigm centered in the heart.
|Heather T. Forbes, LCSW|
Parent and Author of Beyond Consequences, Logic & Control: Volume 1 & Volume 2,
Dare to Love, and Help for Billy.