Self-regulation is an important skill for children to learn to successfully manage the difficult or stglressful events that will happen beginning in infancy and throughout their lifetime. These events may include early childhood experiences like feeling tired or hungry or more complicated experiences like dealing with new situations, starting a new school, or in the case of foster care and adoption, transitioning into a new home. Sensory and emotional regulation plays a large role in self-regulation and it’s important to understand the role of both parents and professionals in shaping the future of our children.
In Season 2, Episode 5 of the Gladney reFRAMED podcast Emily Morehead, LPC, sits down with health expert Robyn Gobbel, LCSW, RPT-S, who shares her more than 15 years of experience with sensory and emotional regulation in the adoption and foster world. Robyn, a therapist, trainer, and consultant is located in Grand Rapids, MI. Before that, she ran a private practice in Austin, TX working mainly with adoptive families for 15 years. Robyn’s training includes eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (including EMDR adapted for children with attachment trauma), Somatic Experiencing, Theraplay, Trust-Based Relational Intervention®, Circle of Security Parent Educator, The Alert Program®, and Yogapeutics Aerial Yoga Level 1 Teacher Training.
Robyn makes it clear that sensory and emotional regulation is a difficult concept to understand. When she first began working with more complex trauma kids, she lacked the training or experience needed. This is what prompted her to learn what she needed to know to best support these kids.
Robyn noticed in her early interactions with the children that they lacked basic self-regulation skills. When your body is out of control emotionally and physically, there’s no opportunity to help a child effectively deal with their trauma or their attachment processing disorder. Feeling frustrated, Robyn began to search for what she could do for these children. Over the years, she has teamed up with creative mentors and taken advantage of opportunities that have involved movement as therapy.
She credits American psychiatrist and trauma expert Bruce Perry, M.D., Ph.D., for his research involving early complex trauma for validating what she thought she felt was right, but wasn’t quite sure. She explains that she instinctively felt that body movement could help to organize the chaos for these children. Helping them make some sense of what they were feeling would also help them so that they could feel more comfortable in their own skin.
“Kids with complex trauma often have disruptions in their sensory system,” Robyn explains.
To get to a place where she could successfully do this type of work, she felt that it was critical for her to first understand how to help support children with body regulation. According to Robyn, it’s not always an option to refer some kids out for occupational therapy. “The body is a part of people’s mental health experience,” she says. “We can’t disconnect our mind and emotions from what’s happening in our bodies.”
Podcast host Emily offers that before coming to The Gladney Center For Adoption she herself hadn’t heard anything about sensory or regulation in children while completing her graduate degree to become a psychotherapist. She explains Gladney’s philosophy that if you’re going to work with children from hard places, you need to know these things. Not knowing is not an option.
What does rhythm and autonomic functioning have to do with it?
Our bodies have rhythm. We breathe with a rhythm. For children who have experienced trauma early in their lives, a part of their brain has been working and adapting right along with their heart rate and the respiration of their body. It’s no surprise then that to help support these vulnerable children we have to support the associated rhythm and autonomic functioning of their body.
Robyn shares that this is not as difficult a task as it sounds because this is how all children in the world are driven to be. They use their bodies to explore and to get lots of sensory experiences (using their five senses: touch, hearing, taste, sight, sound). We are also using these same sensory experiences all the time to take in what’s happening around us without us necessarily knowing it.
It’s how we manage that intake that becomes important to developing healthy sensory and emotional regulation. And there’s no right or wrong way of managing these things. Robyn talks about how it is vital to teach children how to appropriately self-regulate in the different settings they face.
She explains that most of us manage stress and difficult situations in good ways, but not always appropriate to the setting. For children who choose to manage stress in ways that may not be okay for school or a friend’s house, she says that an effective response would be to let the child know that her regulation is normal; however, what may be appropriate in the privacy of their home may not be acceptable elsewhere. It’s really up to the professional or parent to work with the child to discover other ways she can regulate successfully rather than just telling her, “No.”
The absence or lack of any self-regulation will lead to erratic, chaotic, and unpredictable behavior. So discouraging any or all regulation is counterproductive. By helping children to understand and manage their whole rhythms, including those that may have been disrupted or those they may be lacking due to past loss, trauma, or abuse, we empower them to find ways to meet their needs. Robyn explains that with dis-regulated energy, whatever the cause, the initial goal is not to calm the child, but rather to discover whether or not she can help their dis-regulated energy shift into regulated energy.
When Robyn is helping a child to understand and regulate their senses and emotions she says, “I can choose to stop this.” She then goes on to explain that controlling energy is not ending it. Instead, she wants the child to learn to redirect that energy in a regulated and purposeful manner. In all her sessions, she strives to bring a connection between her and the child and then the child within themselves.
How should you approach a child who is exhibiting out of control behaviors?
Robyn begins her journey to approaching and supporting a child who is exhibiting out of control behaviors by asking, “What are we looking for?” She says that regulated and connected children who feel safe and know what to do tend to behave well in most situations presented to them. Whereas, it’s difficult to approach a child who is off-putting because opposition and low-level defiance get in the way of parents or professionals being able to see the child’s true and precious self. Most parents are looking for help with the big, out of control behavior. Not the small stuff.
She also notes that while many people make the jump or connection between sensory and autism, she stresses that they are entirely different issues.
We all have sensory preferences—yes, you too
We can help children exhibiting sensory and emotional regulation issues by first recognizing that we all have sensory preferences. Better yet, parents and professionals should take the time to learn and get to know their own sensory preferences. For example, ask yourself what does your morning routine consists of? Do you wake up, roll out of bed, and reach for something warm like coffee to soothe yourself into wakefulness or do you go straight for something cool like water to get your day started quickly? Say this has become your daily routine for years, how do you feel when you don’t get to have that piping-hot cup of joe or icy-cold, tall glass of water?
We all do things to feel okay in an uncertain and unpredictable world. Unlike children who rely on us for guidance, adults are typically more aware of what sort of coping behaviors are appropriate. Robyn explains that some people choose to smoke. Others may head outside for a run or sit down in a cozy chair to knit. Think about it. Most of these things have a sensory or rhythm component to them.
How can we help children with unique sensory needs?
Some children have unique sensory needs as a result of trauma, abuse, and neglect that unfortunately occur while they’re learning about themselves. As a result of this bad timing, their sensory and emotional regulatory skill development is directly impacted. The impact can come from many polar-opposite ways. Sometimes children may have been physically or emotionally hurt in some way by an abusive caregiver, or they may not have been held or touched enough in settings like institutions, orphanages, or in the care of an emotionally unavailable caregiver. In these extreme cases, as parents and professionals, we must watch and pay attention to the sensory needs of the children. It’s crucial that we collect the information that we need to figure out how to best help these children.
Robyn talks about a child who flipped upside down anytime they discussed hard things. The child’s parents would tell her to sit up and pay attention. But for the child, Robyn says she was engaging a part of her sensory experience that was bringing her regulation. Even when we’re doing things that are bizarre our bodies believe it will be helpful.
Learn the cues
While we should not allow children to be disrespectful or self-regulate inappropriately in different settings, we do need to help them to identify things that they can and should do in order to feel comfortable in their surroundings.
“The more we can teach children about what their body needs in a way that doesn’t shame them, the more connected they are to their bodies. And as they get older they’ll be able to read the cues from their bodies and they’ll know what that cue means. This will allow them to seek out an appropriate coping skill that’s appropriate.”
Robyn emphasizes that this is practically the definition of mental health. Know yourself. Know your body. And know what to do to change the state of things if needed.
How can parents make sure they are meeting their children’s needs?
Emily points out that sometimes as adults we don’t have our own mental health needs met at the self-regulation level. Just like children, we also have anxious responses such as overreacting, fidgeting, and behaving erratically when everything can and does go wrong. We’re human after all. So before we attempt to help a child in need, how do we acknowledge these things within ourselves to better recognize the struggle to self-regulate in our children? Because if we don’t recognize that this is the underlying reason for their actions, we will think it is unruly behavior.
Robyn says that it’s absolutely imperative to consider believing that everything a person does is done in an attempt to help that person to feel better. By doing so, we become more accepting, less annoyed, and more open to helping the people around us to help themselves.
Makes sense, right?
Piecing it all together
Even if you are not able to get to the heart of the matter so far as the source of your child’s dysregulation, you can help them to better regulate their senses and emotions by using what they’re doing and shifting it to be something appropriate. Just as you have your sensory preferences, it is up to parents and professionals to help children recognize their preferences in order to help them regulate their world. Be it rhythmic movement, dance, running, knitting, or even flipping upside down, we can help them to organize the chaos that is happening in their body at that moment in time.
What are some tools parents can use as they identify these needs?
– Gladney Adoptive Parents can watch Robyn’s two recorded trainings, Grief in Foster and Adopted Children (and Families) and Transitions: When Children Have to Move by logging into your MyGladney account, select trainings, and then search by training name.
– The Neurosequential Model in Education, Bruce Perry & Steve Graner
– The Out-of-Sync Child, Carol Stock Kranowitz, M.A.
– Adult Preference Sensory-Motor Checklist (Adapted from “How Does Your Engine Run?) by Therapy Works, Inc.
– The Out-of-Sync Child Has Fun, Carol Stock Kranowitz, M.A.
– Marti Smith, OTR/L, Occupational Therapist, Austin, Texas
Do you feel there is a hole in your heart that can only be filled by a child? We’ve helped complete 32,000+ adoptions. We would love to help you through your adoption journey. Visit Adoption.org or call 1-800-ADOPT-98.