We 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
- 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
- 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