This article is excerpted from a Therapy Chat Podcast interview. Host Laura Reagan, LCSW-C interviewed January Roberts, LCPC (who was then Laura’s supervisee) about her work. January helps neurodivergent children tune into their bodies and helps their parents learn to co-regulate with their children.
In our 2020 interview, at the height of the pandemic, January described how she helps children and families. To listen to the entire interview, click here.
You can also find a transcript of the interview at the link above.
Here’s what January had to say:
Throughout my experiences working with skilled professionals, I really got to learn about really attuning to children and emotional regulation in kids. Through looking at even very small behaviors for communication because one of my clients at the time was nonverbal. As a result, I have been able to connect by seeing the behaviors and being able to track and verbalize and connect with children that way. We really had to look at just the smallest behaviors. That really helps me with my being able to attune to clients now and think about what is going on. Maybe in a room that’s impacting their ability to function fully at the moment.
So a lot of times what looks like being fidgety or jumping around or impulsive behavior, we think of it as either behavior problem. On the other hand, sometimes people think it’s caused by emotional problems but it can also be sensory-related. I have really fallen in love with that approach that people take and working with kids [through that lens].
The result of this is…
A lot of parents – or therapists – are kind of at a loss for how to help their child clients or families dealing with this covid 19 outbreak and the way that it’s caused such a big change in American life and around the world. And just for a little bit of disclosure, I’m a parent as well. I have a nine-and-a-half-year-old son. And so it’s also being able to manage what’s going on in our own experience in our household, as well as being able to help our clients and be able to relate with what is going on.
Just because I’m a therapist doesn’t mean we know how to handle everything perfectly. And especially – it’s different when we’re working with our own kids. How I manage my son might not be how I’m always working with children that I work with within the office. And that’s such an important point.
We can never say it enough that as therapists, we always have to be aware of what’s going on with ourselves.
Right now we’re living through the same thing that our clients are living through at the same time. None of us have ever been this – at least in the United States. So I can relate to what parents are going through. Clients and therapists – we are both going through this right now, which is something that can be connected. But also for therapists, it’s even more important than ever right now for us to be making sure that we’re taking care of what we need to practice what we’re preaching. So you’ve got the first-hand experience with how to live with a child who’s living through this and what they go through. I am here to share some tips for parents and others who are with kids right now about what could be helpful for getting through this situation.
How Can Parents Help Kids Adjust to a Post-Pandemic World and Foster emotional Regulation in Kids?
I think it’s natural for us to want to protect our children from negative feelings. But we really have to resist that knee-jerk reaction to minimize and dismiss what they’re feeling. We can strengthen their sense of safety and security by allowing, acknowledging, and relating to their feelings. Then helping them reframe their focus from threats to solutions. And so when I say allow, it can be hard for us to hear when they’re sad and worried. Especially when we feel the same way! So it’s okay, but really, it’s natural what they’re feeling. And we want them to feel it because this is an abnormal experience.
Embrace the Emotions When Working on Emotional Regulation in Kids
So it’s normal for them to feel it. And it’s our protectiveness of saying “it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay”. When internally they’re feeling like it’s not. So they think, “I must not be okay because I’m being told it’s okay and I shouldn’t feel this way. And I do.” It’s really hard as parents sometimes to hold that space, but allow them to say however they’re feeling. Acknowledge those feelings and then be able to relate in a way that helps contain them. So they can feel that we’re relating to it.
It’s really kind of scary when we aren’t sure of what’s going on right now, it’s okay to share that with kids, but then it’s important as the adult to be able to refocus it by looking at solutions. Like, for instance, a lot of kids may not be seeing their grandparents right now that are separated [during stay-at-home orders]. And for parents, it makes me really sad that we can’t see them in person right now, but for now, we’re going to set up those video chats so that we still get to see and connect with our loved ones. So then they also get that attachment need met. Kids will think “Okay, there’s someone else here who is going to make sure that I’m being taken care of the way I need to, so I can let that go and trust them to do it”.
The number one thing that we can do as parents to help our kids is to make sure that we’re taking care of ourselves.
I always tell my parents that I work with when we’re meeting is it’s important to take that oxygen mask and put it on yourself first and sometimes it’s counterintuitive. But if you’re on a plane, what do they tell you to do? You need to take the oxygen mask so that you’re able to support your kids. If you don’t do that, there isn’t going to be anyone to help. So we need to find the little moments during the day that are our oxygen masks.
Additionally, we need to take that time to help us feel balanced and regulated. Because the number one way we can keep our kids regulated and that’s by us being regulated so we can help them co-regulate. Helping them so that they can feel in control of their emotions and their behaviors by making sure that we’re getting what we need to be regulated as parents.
One strategy I like to use to help explain how we can do that to parents is I like to think of Deb Dana’s Polyvagal Ladder metaphor when it comes to emotional regulation and escalation.
So if you have a kiddo that is starting to get dysregulated and maybe you’re seeing escalating behaviors, maybe they’re starting to get cranky, maybe they’re starting to yell, have the tantrum, they’re starting to go up that ladder. Our response if we are dysregulated ourselves, and maybe we start to get anxious and we start to get frustrated, we start going up the ladder. So now we’re meeting them higher up the ladder.
They’re going to go higher up the ladder. The escalation cycle continues. What we need to do is help bring them back down to emotional regulation. When they start to go up that ladder, we want to stay down. And by staying down and staying regulated, it’s going to help them come down the ladder.
And a few ways that I use to help co-regulate, as we call it, using co-regulation, using myself as a vessel to help a child access their body’s ability to regulate itself so they are no longer overwhelmed.
Strategies for co-regulation
These are some of the ways I work with children who are dysregulated when they come into the office, or wherever I am working with them.
- One, I get down physically to their level so that I’m not being perceived as a physical threat. Like I get down, maybe I’m moving away just a little bit so I’m not in their space.
- Two, I use my voice. So even if they’re getting loud, I’m going to use my voice by speaking calmly, keeping it at a low level to help them regulate.
- Also too, if there are lights on, I will often shut the lights off so that it’s not that it’s pitch black, but a lot of times the bright lights can be stimulating. So I allow the natural light in the room or some form of indirect light to help their nervous system come down.
So that’s another way of helping use the environment in a way to help emotionally regulate them. Those are a couple of strategies that I do.
And really I find that co-regulation is one of the most powerful tools that we can use to help our kiddos emotionally regulate. And that can be hard. During these times when we’re feeling stressed out, we’ve got all these stressors. It’s hard for us to self-regulate. And so if we’re lucky enough to have another support in the household that we can use that we can actually piggyback responsibilities. So if I’m like, I’m kind of frustrated right now and I need some time and having someone else tap in to deal with the situation so that I can go and get myself regulated, I’m going to come back after we’ve had some time where everyone is regulated and is calm.
Acknowledge that You are not perfect and neither are they.
So maybe talk about that. And it’s very powerful when we can own – when we realize – I didn’t handle that quite the way I’d like to or I couldn’t handle it at that moment. It’s a very powerful tool to use with kiddos, that acknowledgment. “Okay, I’m not expecting myself to be perfect and I’m going to own that”, this matters because that allows our kids not to feel like they need to be perfect too. Yes, that is so true.
And I mean, that’s one of the hardest things is if the parent isn’t feeling regulated for good reason, because there’s big stuff happening, they may be afraid or past trauma could have been activated or something that they’re living through right at that moment is extremely challenging for them and really hard to stay regulated. But no one is regulated all the time. The point is to just be able to be in touch with how you feel and know how to help yourself get back to that more steady place so you feel centered and more aligned.
Along with this piece, is that self-compassion piece, too.
A lot of feedback I’m hearing from parents is not feeling like they’re enough right now, feeling the pressure of like, I can’t do it all. I’m not doing enough in the situation. And the reality is no one can. It is impossible to fill all the roles, not just parents, but other people are being asked to fill. When you are more than likely stuck at home and you’re trying to balance work, family responsibilities, and education responsibilities, and they all start rolling it at once, there’s no way. And so being able to give self-compassion and allow it’s not going to be perfect. What’s most important is to be present and to be intentional with where we’re focusing our energy and realizing we can’t focus our energy everywhere all at once. It’s impossible!
Online Therapy is Still Effective if You Need Support for Emotional Regulation in Kids!
That’s an awesome little plug for teletherapy there because, for many clients, there’s a concern. Will it feel the same? What will it be like not to be in person? And what if we have connection problems and things like that? But there is a way that you can it’s not the same as being in person. But you can still connect to your relationship through the medium, even though it’s different.
I think I really go back to my adventure-based counseling part. Especially with things that don’t always go how we think they’re going to go. And we have to adapt. We have to adjust. We’ve got to find resources. And I know in sessions that I’ve had with kiddos, it’s been really powerful. And I feel like when we’re attuned and we can be creative, it creates that energy. I feel it from my kiddos. I know that my kiddos have felt it from me by seeing what they’re doing and how they’re responding.
January has a lot of wonderful tools that she uses in her online practice to engage children in psychotherapy. That helps them develop their ability to co-regulate. You can learn more about her practice by viewing her listing in Trauma Therapist Network here.
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Understanding attachment and sensory sensitive, trauma-informed parenting can be difficult. Talking with a trauma therapist can make it a bit easier. Start understanding your children and utilizing trauma-informed parenting today. It all begins with finding a trauma therapist today! Trauma is real and can be difficult to understand. Even if your child has lived a happy healthy life they can still benefit from trauma-informed parenting. Start the process with the help of a trauma therapist. Find A Trauma Therapist by clicking here