Regulation- sounds like a buzz phrase, but it is basically a person's ability to keep themselves in an alert and calm state while attending to the environment around them. It is the foundation of all cognitive thinking and learning, as depicted in the diagram below. Without the foundation of regulation, we cannot engage any higher-order thinking in the tree trunk or the branches above.
So why do we hear about regulation or, more to the point, dysregulation in children that are attending speech therapy? Well, for one, children with neurodivergence have different brain wiring, which makes it challenging to maintain regulation. Other children find it hard to maintain emotional regulation because they experience continual frustration at not being able to be understood.
But dysregulation is not isolated to children with additional needs. It isn't even isolated to children. We as adults often experience more frequent periods of overwhelm at this time of year due to the additional demands on our time, exhaustion, and expectations that we and society place upon ourselves.
We are not immune from having difficulties accessing our higher levels of cognition once we reach a state of dysregulation. To complete tasks that comprise the trunk or tree branches, first, we must be regulated as well. Easier said than done, hey.
Dr. Stanley Greenspan was a neurodevelopmental psychologist who created the therapy DIRFloortime. DIR stands for:
Developmental capacities (which cognitive functions do we possess),
Individual differences (our emotional, sensory, and motor differences) and
Relationships (how we attune to significant others around us to help build our cognitive skills as we grow our brain through purposeful connections).
Floortime is the name used to describe child lead play where they engage with a significant other in 20 minutes to promote growth in the child's developmental capacities while considering their differences.
I will use this approach as a model to describe how we can help build regulation skills in our children and the problems that I see (and am guilty of myself as a parent) at this time of year.
Let's start with developmental capacities. Despite general age guidelines for when a child typically acquires each cognitive skill, it does not mean that just because a child is four, they can think logically. We need to look at our children individually and see where they fit in the scale of cognitive growth! Why? We must consider the expectations we place on a child to see if these are achievable. We cannot expect children who cannot problem-solve, to resolve a conflict with a sibling on their own! We cannot expect a child who struggles with regulation to engage and communicate efficiently, as regulation underpins these later developing capacities.
Functional Emotional Developmental Capacities
I know that with more family about this time of year, outside forces influence how we respond to our children, but please remember, you know your child best. Try to avoid listening to external forces with their ill-fitting advice and feel confident that keeping your child regulated throughout Christmas allows them to learn new skills and grow their brain.
After we have set up some boundaries and expectations based on where a child is functioning, we need to consider their differences. We all have individual sensory profiles. Some of these include how tired the child is and how well they eat, if their bowel movements are consistent, and their sensory profile. Some people love Christmas and its sensory onslaught (Me Me Me). Others hate it and respond by running away (flight), melting down or thrashing out (fight), or simply going to their internal happy place (freeze). To help our kids maintain their regulation, think about what sensations they are over-responsive to and try to limit these. Then consider sensory responses that they are under-responsive to and find ways to build these into their day to help them stay regulated. Some families may be familiar with their child's sensory needs if they engage in Occupational Therapy. However, others may not be. For those who would like more information, please see the information at the end to help guide your thinking.
It is also worth considering your own sensory profile while considering your child's. I am under-responsive to tactile and proprioceptive input hence my need to move my body each day and have things to fidget with when I have to sit for an extended time. I make sure that I build these into my days all year round, but especially when the demands on me are high, to maintain my regulation and offer my children the best version of myself.
The final thing we must address when helping a child is our relationship with them. Children cannot regulate themselves when young and learn how to do this through co-regulation. They use our response to learn how to work through emotions which they can then later copy. So imagine if you are dysregulated and shouting all the time. All the child is learning to do is shout when feeling overwhelmed. If you are regulated, you must respond to match the child's emotions. We often see the dumbing down of emotions or the attempt to smooth everything over with distraction or comedy. We also rarely see that work. When children express a feeling, they are communicating to you their true selves, and they want to be seen and acknowledged. We can do that by mirroring their emotions. If they stomp their foot with their hands on their hips, we do the same while offering them the words for their frustration. This way, we can help the child move through their dysregulation. I had the most beautiful experience with my seven-year-old on holiday this week, which encapsulates this responsive relationship to meet his sensory and relationship needs to help him overcome his dysregulation.
We are on holiday this week, and our youngest was diagnosed with Coeliac disease earlier this year, so he has to eat a strict gluten-free diet. Birthday parties and holidays suck when you are seven and gluten-free because everyone else is eating all the yummy food, and you have to stand by and watch. So on our first day, we find a cute ice cream shop with gluten-free waffle cones, except they are sold out. Mr 9 orders ice cream in a waffle cone and Mr 7 gets upset. He doesn't cry, but you can see he is close to it. My beautiful husband tries to make him laugh, but it only upsets Mr 7 even more. He feels like no one understands what he has to put up with. He feels ignored. He has a similar sensory profile to me to loves deep pressure and cuddles. I scoot alongside him, squeeze him tight, and tell him that it is so crap being a coeliac, and I get his frustration and anger. He looks up at me with tears in his eyes and half smiles. He wants to go home and grab his bike to escape quickly. On the way back to our campsite, I ask him if we want to ride further to the beach. He is still annoyed but agrees. Once we get there, he picks up some heavy rocks and throws them in the water- again helping him meet his sensory need, and he starts to smile and laugh. He has worked through his dysregulation by meeting his sensory needs and being seen and heard. I was able to help him at that moment because I was also feeling calm but trust me when I say that even with all of my training, I do not get it right all the time. We are human, and we all lose it from time to time. The most important thing, I believe, is to show our children how to work through our mistakes and make them better. Maggie Dent is a great parenting resource and her motto is "good enough parenting" as there is not such thing as perfect.
So what are the take-home messages to keep a happy and regulated family this Christmas:
Set boundaries and expectations based on your child's cognitive capacity
Help them maintain their regulation by offering sensory activities that suit their individual needs.
Respond with a high affect to their distress to help them work through their challenges rather than perpetuating the cycle
And the most important thing is to look after yourself as a parent, as you cannot offer your child support if you are on uneven ground.
Sensory Profile Considerations
Auditory processing- sound
doesn't like loud noises, has difficulty tuning into spoken words when in a noisy environment
doesn't respond when spoken to, seems like they are not listening, difficulties with understanding language
Visual processing- sight
cannot shift attention when in a visually stimulating environment, often love watching moving pieces of toys or playing with small intricate objects
seems to be unaware of objects in the immediate environment, often can't locate things when you point to them
Vestibular - movement of the fluid in the inner ear
avoids spinning or changing body positions
seeks spinning/swinging activities and anything that changes their head position
Tactile - touch
has sensitivity with clothing, avoids certain sensations such as sand, grass, doesn't like messy play
Loves being messy and will often not know when they are wet/dry/dirty
Proprioceptive- the feeling of movement through the joints
sits and enjoys quiet play
seeks movement, running, jumping, skipping, crashing into things
avoids certain places due to smell and has a restricted diet
does not seem to be aware of offensive smells in the environment
restricted diet, prefers bland foods
eats a wide range of food buts seeks strong flavors