Helping Traumatized Children Regulate

Angry little girl shouting

In my last blog, I shared information from Dr. Bruce Perry and his approach to understanding the needs of a traumatized child to first receive regulation help before expecting that child to be able to relate or reason.

In this post I will provide you with some of his recommendations for promoting regulation. This will be much less detailed than what Dr. Perry includes in his neuro-sequential model but I think it gives you a sense of how you can shift gears in your thinking to help address the actual needs of the child in the moment.

Dysregulation is occurring because of disruptions in the lower brain regions that cause chaotic, out-of-control or dissociative behaviors (disconnection with reality/out of touch/unable to connect) associated with unresolved trauma. Helping that child regulate is using what Dr. Perry calls somatosensory responses.

Woman comforting her upset child  mother hugging sad daughter

Somatosensory responses focus on the body (from the word “somatic”) and sensory approaches (of the five senses: touch, taste, smell, sight or sound), impact the lower brain regions. Somatosensory responses calm the ways the lower brain is responding to a perceived or real danger or has been triggered, (or reminding) the lower brain of a previous terrifying experience.

Here are a few suggestions for helping a child become regulated:

  • Gentle massaging with or without lotion
  • Sipping cold water
  • Rocking
  • Swinging
  • Music (soothing with a steady beat)
  • Drumming, clapping
  • Tapping (bilateral stimulation – alternating from one side to the other)
  • Martial arts
  • Skating, sledding, skiing, snow boarding
  • Sleep hygiene
  • Walking, running, biking, exercising
  • Singing, rapping
  • Animal-assisted therapy
  • Plush/stuffed animals to hold, surround child
  • Creative arts: painting, coloring, modeling clay, playdoh or slime
  • Breathing exercises
  • Gardening, playing in the dirt
  • Swimming, water play
  • Taking a bath
  • Rowing
  • Essential oils
  • Jumping (skipping robe, jumping jacks, trampoline)
  • Spinning
  • Weighted blankets, wrapping tightly/swaddling, holding/hugging child
  • Dancing
  • Balancing on beam, line on floor, on one foot then the other
  • Resistance/stretching bands
  • Yoga poses
  • Playing in sand
  • Tearing paper, creating and throwing paper balls
  • Playing catch
  • Pushing/lifting something heavy
  • Yoga ball
  • Push-ups, sit-ups
  • Punching bag
  • Playing in/hiding in empty box
  • Curling up under a blanket

Parents, caregivers and therapists can Google any of these for additional information and suggestions.

teacher comforting crying preschool boy in classroom

It is important to observe what seems to help a child regulate. It may take several minutes or and adaptations based on what seems to be helping. Also, what helps in one situation may or may not help in another. Sometimes an activity can promote regulation and sometimes is can be more agitating than regulating. With some objects or activities there might have to be rules about maintaining safety and not hurting someone or something while regulating.

When in a calm state, or when a child can reason, think, and understand, you can teach them about the brain and how it can become dysregulated. You can invite a child to think about what might help him or her in those moments when dysregulation happens and maybe go over the list provided in this blog. You can let a child practice by trying out some of these to see what seems to help bring calm even if he or she is not dysregulated at the moment. You can teach a child to state that he or she is becoming dysregulated and needs help getting regulated. You can make or invite a child to make a list of the objects and activities that might be helpful the next time he or she dysregulates.

These suggestions for helping with a child’s dysregulation work for adults as well!

Invitation to Reflect:

  1. How do you think a child might react when a parent shifts from talking and attempting to reason with them to focusing on specific responses to help him or her regulate? How might that influence the dynamics of their relationship?
  2. Which of the suggestions make the most sense to you, given the nature of the child or children with whom you interact? Which are you curious about trying in the hope that it will encourage regulation?  

Diane Wagenhals, Program Director, Lakeside Global Institute