With a Traumatized Child, Regulating Trumps Rules

Little girl screaming. Desperate child yelling, emotional stress concept

I clearly remember sitting in the audience in Banff Canada several years ago, listening attentively to Dr. Bruce Perry share some of his latest approaches to helping trauma-impacted children. He showed us all a slide with three words stacked on top of each other. At the bottom was “Regulate,” next was “Relate” followed by “Reason.” This hierarchy of words forever changed the way I understand trauma.

Basically what Dr. Perry was sharing was that a child needs to be sufficiently regulated internally, which means he or she needs to be in a reasonably calm or alert brain state and not be highly emotional, hyper-vigilant, hyper-aggressive or in any way emotionally or physically out of control, before being asked to relate to someone. That means in those moments of dysregulation, the trauma-impacted child is incapable of emotionally or cognitively connecting with another person, and cannot engage or appreciate what might be going on for that person. In that moment, the child needs help regulating his or her inner world.

There are several ways to help children regulate. This will be the focus of my next blog. For now, it is important to appreciate the impact of dysregulation on a child and how the child is truly incapable of relating or reasoning.

aggressive angry conflict child screaming shouting, problem behavior

It is only after a child has become more regulated that his or her focus can shift to engaging relationally. Now a child can make eye contact, can be aware that another person might be having feelings, can become interested in connecting with that person. The child will be noticeably calmer and become attentive. This is where a parent, caregiver or other adult can shift from helping a child become regulated to helping a child engage relationally.

Once there has been a relational connection, and a child is in a higher brain state of being either alert or calm, the adult can now expect that a child can reason. At that point he or she can think more clearly and respond to directives, and can understand what is being asked of him or her. The child is no longer being ruled by emotional needs or the overwhelming reactionary behaviors associated with children with unresolved trauma.

Of course, any child can become highly dysregulated when distressed, upset, frustrated or angry. But the same principle can apply as with traumatized kids. Knowing this and determining how to respond, an adult can help any child become more regulated before expecting they can relate and then reason. With a trauma-impacted child, dysregulation can be much more severe and much more difficult to mediate.

Here is where parents and caregivers can be challenged: how do I not enforce rules when a child is misbehaving? Shouldn’t there be the normal consequences for misbehavior? Am I being overindulgent if I don’t insist that rules are followed? Is the child learning he or she can get away with misbehaving just because he or she has been triggered which has led to being out of control?

Certainly, children need rules and structure to feel safe and to help them become responsible adults. If a child is merely unhappy or frustrated, a parent or caregiver can follow the normal protocol of expecting that rules are followed and that consequences are imposed when a child needs discipline. The key is attuning to those times when the child with unresolved trauma is so overwhelmed by something deep inside related to his or her traumatic experiences that it is unfair to expect that child to be able to relate or reason. It is not overindulgent to meet a child’s needs in that instance. In fact, it is good and responsible parenting to know when to switch gears and focus on ways to help a child become regulated.

Depending on the intensity of the child’s dysregulation, when a parent or other adult takes the time to promote regulation, the child is given the opportunity to regain his or her composure and feel safer in his or her own inner world that often is in turmoil, especially when some aspect of that child’s traumatic past rears up. Over time the child learns that the parent or other adults in his or her world truly understands how dysregulation can suddenly overwhelm that child, causing internal chaos that results in external acting out.

Parents can then spend time relating and reasoning with the calmer child discussing how and why they behaved as they did and helping promote the hope that over time dysregulation will not be as frequent or intense. Children can be frightened of how out-of-control they can get and they need more assurance and outside assistance than any kind of criticism, unfair expectations or punishment.

Once I understood this three-tiered hierarchy – regulate/relate/reason, I realized how important it is for parents and caregivers to know they need to be consistently safe rather than consistent with rules. It was a shift in my understanding of the nature of trauma when interacting with a trauma-impacted child. I hope you will take some time to ponder this and consider shifting your own attitudes, beliefs and behaviors to better accommodate the needs of any trauma-impacted children in your life.

Invitation to Reflect:

  1. If you have a child with trauma-related issues and needs, how have you responded when the child has become dysregulated? Do you find yourself insisting that rules be followed?
  2. How does this information change your attitudes and beliefs about what a trauma-impacted child might need when becoming dysregulated? What are some of the behaviors you might now exhibit? How do you think they will impact the situation? Your relationship with your child?

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute