Mindfulness and Regulation

angry-child-boyMuscles clench in your belly, your chest tightens. A shortness of breath and a sense of panic. The blood seems to have rushed to your core and you don’t have much awareness of your feet or of your surroundings. Your mouth is dry and your thoughts are racing. This is a glimpse into what can happen when the nervous system dys-regulates. When your unconscious mind has picked up a signal that you are unsafe and your body needs to activate for protection. When something happening now stirs up an implicit memory from a past time when you felt similarly—even though the situation is completely different and you’re all grown up now. The response is fast, unexpected, intense. It often happens before you have any control over its whirlwind effect on you.

This is what can happen in the body when we become dysregulated. When our children become dysregulated the same thing happens for them, as well. A child, however, does not typically have the tools and skills to express this rush of intensity, so s/he will often act out or shut down in order to discharge or suppress this energy. So how do children (and adults) learn to respond more effectively when they are triggered?

Mindfulness is key. It requires the recognition of our internal experience in order to shift our internal experience. When we are aware of what is happening for us internally, then we have more freedom to make a different choice in our response.

Helping our children develop a sense of authentic self-awareness allows them, in the moment of overwhelm, to stay connected to themselves, thus having more of their rational brain online and thus eliciting more choice and control over how they respond. We teach mindfulness and self-awareness predominantly by modeling these capacities and cultivating them in ourselves. Checking in with ourselves regularly throughout the day—particularly with the body, which is where emotional regulation and dys-regulation begin to be activated. Throughout the day, notice what is happening in your body. What is the temperature? What sensations do you experience? What parts of you are tight and clenched? What parts of you are relaxed? Are you numb? Overgripping? No judgment, simply notice and breathe. Unknown

When we bring our attention to the body the impulse to judge or create a story about our experience dissipates. The less we do this, the less our mind remains an active participant in the process. The mind fights for our survival, but it often sabotages our ability to regulate by getting caught up in the need to solve the problem or make sense of the situation. There are times when this is necessary. But most of the time, when we are dys-regulated, it hinders our capacity to move forward.

IMG_1160Stay with the body and teach your children to be in the body. Over time, patterns that we have been stuck in will begin to soften and release. Tensions will fall away. Emotions will move through paving the way for more spaciousness and more calm. Be playful and fun in the ways you teach children to have this awareness of the body.

Camp Connect: What A Week!


From August 5 through the 16th my colleague Mia Bertram and I brought two groups of kids together, each with us for a week, to be a part of a pretty special summer camp. Camp Connect is a program that helps children learn to cultivate relationships, regulate their emotions, express their feelings, ask for what they need all in a spirit of compassion and staying connected to oneself. We use art, music, yoga, play, theater, story-telling, games and more to give children a rich experience and a variety of modalities through which they can express themselves. With two highly trained and experienced play therapists as the facilitators and music therapists, art therapists and yoga teachers as our guests, the kids got a pretty unique level of support. And the changes that we got to witness over the week were amazing.

We observed children going from feeling overwhelmed and dys-regulated in the group setting, to making friends and connecting in meaningful ways. We witnessed kids self-advocating, standing up for themselves and asking for what they needed. Children who struggle to focus and regulate in group settings were doing yoga and learning the inherent value of listening to and staying in their bodies. And the brilliance of these groups of children in working together and coming up with invaluable strategies for expressing emotions (especially the big, hot yucky feelings), staying safe, respecting personal space and more… It was so much fun to watch and learn from these little ones.


exploring what musical sounds we can make with paper


breathing and listening in downward facing dog


sitting in our personal space bubbles while Mia reads a story about personal space

Let’s Regulate!

images-2Self-regulation is the cornerstone for being in relationship. If I am not regulated, then it is very difficult for me to be in relationship with you (or myself).  The same is true for children. When a child is dys-regulated he is disconnected from his/her body, has difficulty expressing him/herself in words, may be struggling with behavior or may shut down and all-around has difficulty being in connected, engaged relationship. The good news is that through modeling and through practice, we can actually teach children’s nervous systems how to go from a state of dys-regulation to regulation.

And the benefits to this are tremendous!

A regulated child is more able to focus, stay calm and listen, have a greater window of tolerance and express emotion without reactivity and impulsivity—just to name a few qualities. Here are some strategies for helping children regulate—use these consistently as ways to teach your child what it feels like to be regulated.

  • Model and name out loud the ways that you regulate your emotions. Take deep breaths, feel your feet on the ground, shake your arms and legs out, wiggle your toes, give yourself a little squeeze…
  • Play fun dance music and boogie with your kids. Then stop the music and everyone freezes!images-4
  • Hula hoop, shake it out, make a band and get in rhythm with each other.
  • Nature time! Spend time outside playing, skipping, moving like animals, noticing what you see, hear, smell, feel, taste. Being in nature is extremely regulating for most children so get outdoors and have some fun.
  • Warm bath with some lavender oil or bubbles. This can be especially regulating when a child has been hyper-aroused and acting out. Stay close and help your kiddo feel safe. Pour water over his/her body with a funnel or sieve (ask if this is something he/she wants first).
  • Wrap your little one up like a burrito. This can be great for hypo or hyper aroused children. Ask them what they want in their burrito (toppings, love, sprinkles—there’s no wrong answer!). Then wrap them up and give them a sweet and loving squeeze.
  • Play “I Spy” or, for older children “I Am Aware”. The first one is self-explanatory. The second one I do like this: we toss a ball back and forth. When you have the ball you say something that you are aware of (something you notice). I alternate each round—first round something you’re aware of in your environment, second round something you feel inside of you (emotion, sensation, body, etc).


  • Dig in the dirt, mud or sand. Move rocks. Throw a weighted ball back and forth. How earthy can you be?
  • Find your inner animal—walk and talk like an animal. If you were an elephant how would your body move? What sounds would come out of you? How much space would you need around you?
  • images-3Order a sensory brush and brush your child. I’ve found this extremely beneficial to my hyper-aroused clients lately. Ask them how they want the strokes (pressure, direction, where on their body, etc). Brush each other. This is a great thing to do each night before going to bed or each morning before the day’s activities really get under way. You can find these little plastic brushes on Amazon—they are inexpensive and so easy to use.


Regulation activities like these can be done every single day to help kids’ nervous systems develop an imprint of what it means to be relaxed and present. Get fun and playful with the ways you regulate yourself and your children. It may seem simple but the rewards are many: more resilient, communicative, focused, relaxed and relational children. What more could you possibly want? Now go regulate and have some fun!

Supporting Kids Through Stress

Play Therapy: Trauma, Stress and Dysregulation

Often I am asked by curious, perhaps sometimes skeptical parents, what Play Therapy is and how it will help their child be calmer, more resilient, more mentally healthy. Play Therapy is the preferred approach in working with children, speaking to kids in their language of choice. Each model of Play Therapy has something unique to offer and can be beneficial in its own way; however, when it comes to working with children’s stress, trauma and their emotional (and therefore behavioral) dys-regulation, it is critical to have a Play Therapist who understands the biological mechanisms of stress and its impact on the developing nervous system.

Leading trauma author and researcher Dr. Peter Levine says, “Trauma happens when any experience stuns us like a bolt out of the blue; it overwhelms us, leaving us altered and disconnected from our bodies. Any coping mechanisms we may have had are undermined, and we feel utterly helpless and hopeless,” (from Trauma Through A Child’s Eyes by Peter A. Levine and Maggie Kline) The flight/fight/freeze response in our brain has been activated in response to a perceived threat, neurochemicals and stress hormones are released signaling to the brain and body to either mobilize (fight/flight) or to “play dead” (freeze) and the nervous system is flooded with information. When the danger has surpassed, if we are not able to discharge the flood of nervous system energy and integrate the experience, it will likely be stored in the nervous system and the body as trauma and can be debilitating to the life of the individual, particularly to children.

How Can We Help Children Move Through A Traumatic Experience

Integration refers to the linking of different parts of the brain in order to help them function well together. Trauma is primarily a function of the brain’s right hemisphere, which is more closely associated with the lower, or more primitive parts of the brain. In fact, our fight/flight/freeze response is governed by our brainstem, the very back of the brain close to where the back of your head meets your neck. In order to heal from trauma and integrate an experience, we must create connections between the sensory information that is stored in the right hemisphere (the imprint of the traumatic experience) and the rest of the brain, particularly the left hemisphere and the pre-frontal cortex (the area behind your forehead responsible for more sophisticated functions such as rational thought, sequencing of events, empathy and intuition, etc.)

Now that you know a bit about the biology of stress and trauma, what can you do in the aftermath of a frightening event to help a child calm his/her nervous system and ultimately to integrate the experience? Here are some pointers:

  • Use the oxygen mask philosophy: attend to your own state of regulation and do what you need to do to regulate: deep breaths, feel into your body, shake your hands out, feel your feet on the ground, say a calming phrase to yourself (such as, I am ok).
  • Attend to your child’s basic needs first—safety, human touch (rubbing his back, holding her hand), nourishment (a glass of water), rest.
  • Maintain an authentic attitude of empathy and compassion. Even if your child was in the wrong in some way (i.e. made a mistake and fell off his bike), now is not the time to discuss this. Let him know he is safe now, that you are here, that you’ll talk about the details of what happened later and that now is the time for him to just get safe and calm himself.
  • Repeatedly orient your child back to his/her body. Ask her to feel her feet on the ground. Tell her to let you know where it hurts or what it feels like right now. If she has a specific sensation, ask her for more detail about this. Does it have a color, a size, a shape? As humans, one of our coping mechanisms during trauma is to dissociate or “check out”. One way to keep the trauma from developing into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is to interrupt this dissociation by “getting back in the body”.
  • Crying, trembling, shaking and movement are normal and healthy once the shock of a traumatic experience has worn off. Allow this to happen naturally and stay present with your child while he/she releases these waves (this is energy that has built up in the nervous system as a result of the frightening experience and it needs to be discharged). Assure your child that this is normal and it’s ok to cry or shake.
  • When the child is calmed again, has rested and had his/her basic needs tended to, now is the time to talk about and integrate the experience. This is the time in which parents can ask questions and allow the child to tell his/her story. Draw a storybook or comic describing his memory of the experience, focusing on how it felt for him/her. This allows integration between the two hemispheres of the brain and can lead to greater resilience and healing from the experience.

When To Consult a Professional Play Therapist

There are times when we are not able to fully help our children integrate and bounce back from an experience. Here are signs that it may be time to consult a Play Therapist with a background in trauma work to help your child process and feel better:

  • Changes in personality or drastic changes in behavior
  • Regression: suddenly acting younger than his/her age, reverting to old stages of development—reverse progress in potty training, sucking thumb, talking baby talk, bed-wetting
  • Mood swings and/or the child is unusually sullen, sad, angry or controlling
  • Unusual themes and feelings in the child’s play that suggest he/she is working through an overwhelming experience
  • Sleep disturbances, Nightmares
  • Social withdrawal or isolation for a previously social child
  • Changes in appetite and eating habits
  • Physical symptoms that don’t have a traceable physical cause

How Play Therapy Can Help

Here is how Play Therapy with a trained and experienced Play Therapist can help your child move through this difficult time and come back more resilient, confident and emotionally regulated.

As humans we are inherently relational, using our relationships to learn about ourselves, develop confidence and to heal when we are facing or have faced a challenge. Play Therapy offers children a unique relationship in which they can express their internal world and explore their struggles in a highly supportive and compassionate environment. As children express themselves, the therapist facilitates the processing and integration of stressful or traumatic experiences. Through their play, shifts in the biology of the child’s brain and nervous system are able to take place thus allowing the child more ease and fluidity in nervous system regulation. This shift leads to greater resilience, the ability to regulate stress and more ease in the expression of one’s emotional experience and states through words rather than through behavior.

Play Therapy is the research-based method of choice for helping children with a variety of issues including, but not limited to PTSD, depression, anxiety, abuse, behavioral challenges, adoption, divorce or separation, separation anxiety, grief and loss, sleep or eating disturbances, bed-wetting, impulsivity, social challenges and more.

Those aren’t symptoms, I’m just dys-regulated.

girl-on-jungle-gymWe humans have a 2-part nervous system: one part gets us wired up (sympathetic nervous system) and the other part helps to calm us down (parasympathetic nervous system). Simply put: From the time we are born, our brains pick up signals that trigger one part of our brain or the other. If we perceive something in our environment as a threat, our nervous systems reacts, quickly kicking us into fight/flight or freeze mode. Fight/Flight are signs that the sympathetic nervous system has taken over and Freeze is a sign that we’ve gone into extreme parasympathetic functioning.

What does this mean for your child? When your little one (or big one) is acting out or shutting down, they are feeling extreme levels of threat and nervous system dys-regulation. Their brains and their bodies have literally moved into defense mode in order to protect them from the threat. When an infant or child has repeatedly experienced threats or stressers, his/her nervous system starts to literally operate at one extreme or the other (hyper or hypo-arousal) nearly all the time. This child has learned that in order to survive, he has to be poised to fight/flight/freeze at all times. When a child is in an aroused state of being, he cannot think rationally and we cannot expect her to. What this means is that something seemingly innocuous can trigger a reaction that seems totally inappropriate to us “rational” adults. But to him, it’s his way of surviving in the world.

When we see adults who have been diagnosed with a psychiatric “disorder”, what we’re really seeing is extreme levels of nervous system dys-regulation that have become a way of being for the individual. Diagnoses, however, are based on external symptoms, which are only half of what’s really going on. Typically, when a person is exhibiting hyper-aroused behaviors (aggression, hyper-vigilance, anxiety…) he/she is actually quite hypo-aroused (shut down, numb, unmotivated, lonely, isolated) on the inside.  It is even theorized that children who are diagnosed with ADHD move and fidget as much as they do in an effort to wake themselves up from the numbness they’re feeling internally.

For children, play therapy is a place where they express their feelings and bring their hyper/hypo-aroused energy. They learn to recognize and name the feelings of dys-regulation, while also getting to have experiences of regulating their nervous systems. We can also help children learn to recognize these feelings and regulate their systems at home. Since they’re not capable of cognitive thought in this moment (just like you wouldn’t be thinking rationally if you were feeling threatened), we need to meet them at the level of their fear and overwhelm. Acknowledging that they are scared and feel hot/cold/numb/tense in their bodies is an excellent place to start. To help regulate the nervous system, the child needs to have experiences of the opposite state that he/she normally tends to be in. And, most importantly, as parents we can’t expect our kids to have regulated nervous systems if we are not making sure we are regulated ourselves. Read on for some examples of each state and some activities we can do to train our nervous systems to be healthy.

Hypo-Arousal (Freeze/Fall Asleep)

Numbing, Automatic Disobedience, Lethargy, Emotional Constriction, Lack of Motivation, Lifelessness, Inability to set boundaries

Activities to Help Regulate Hypo-Arousal:

  • Run, jump, spin, dance with pauses to take deep breaths
  • Run up and down stairs
  • Shake head quickly
  • Play loud music and dance
  • Deep pressure on arms and legs
  • Eat something crunchy (carrots, pretzels)
  • Carry heavy things or push heavy things around
  • Turn on the lights



Overwhelmed, Disorganized, Anxious, Irritable, Defensive, Hyper-vigilant, Angry or Rageful, Difficulty sitting still, Overwhelms others

Activities to Help Regulate Hyper-Arousal

  • Run, jump, spin, dance with pauses to curl up or get small
  • Massages
  • Take a bath or a shower
  • Play soothing music during transitions or difficult times of day
  • Hang upside down off bed or couch
  • Hold koosh ball or play dough
  • Play with sand, play dough, water
  • Swing
  • Read a book

Regulated Nervous System

Think logically and clearly, Can make eye contact, Can make conscious choices, Calm, In the body, Stable Sleep Cycles, Feel grounded, Can (verbally) communicate clearly

*adapted from Nervous System regulation and dys-regulation, Lisa Dion, LPC, RPT-S