Understanding our sensory systems

With trauma-informed parenting, it is important to understand our sensory systems. There are 8 sensory systems, but we often recall 5. Smell, touch, sight, hearing, and taste. It’s part of how we get ourselves through the world. When you study babies, you can clearly see they are little sensate beings. They don’t have reasoning yet. No ability to talk to you. They are taking in the world through their senses. Well, we also sense beings and somehow the field of mental health has un- integrated sensory integration and they need to integrate it.

When it comes to the nervous system, there’s the behavioral approach which says that the person is making a choice and you hear it all the time. Now parents have this language that all the parents use and you made a choice, a bad choice or good choice, or chose to do this.

I’m thinking a lot of it is not a choice because it’s a reaction. It’s their body responding to their internal experience. whether it’s an attachment process, a trauma process, or a sensory process. The truth is you don’t have control over it.

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The two main categories of behaviors

One thing that is huge is that parents and trauma therapists really don’t understand that there are two different main categories of behaviors. First is volitional, meaning intentional on-purpose behaviors. Second is instinctual, adaptive, subconscious behaviors. It’s important to note this because when something is a reaction, it’s not pre-planned. It is what we call neuro-developmentally adaptive because it is protective of the child’s nervous system. So maybe I can explain really quick, a little bit about the difference between top-down and bottom-up behaviors. This is something I want all therapists to know and parents to Please.

Trauma-Informed Parenting: Top-down Approach

Top-down behaviors are those ones that the person, adult or child, is thoughtfully thinking about the behavior. Then caring it out intentionally. So an example would be, a five-year-old who sneaks into the kitchen and eats half of the dinner before dinner time. While mommy’s distracted on the phone and, then crawls away to their bedroom, They knew they weren’t supposed to eat dinner yet. Okay. That was a top-down behavior. The child saw the food and intended to eat it. The hunger may have been the bottom-up source of it. However, it was still the child was in charge and they knew what they were doing.

Bottom-up Approach in Trauma-informed Parenting

Now, this second category of behaviors is bottom-up or body-up behaviors. Body- behaviors are when the nervous system subconsciously detects threats or is unsafe. And then there is an action associated with this microsecond evaluation of the environment. Again, take a five-year-old all of a sudden they’re in the kitchen and a large truck rumbles down the road. This child happens to have acute sensitivity to certain thunderous sounds. The child is eating dinner, the next thing you know, they throw their dinner off the table.

They’ve had a sudden nervous system, what we call perception of threat. And the protective reaction is you move your body very fast without thought and that child’s throwing the dish. If you ask the child why they did it, they would have no idea. And the parent usually asks “why did you do that? Why did you make that choice?” Well, it wasn’t a choice. It was a reaction. So one of the main things we need to understand is if a child’s behavior is top-down or bottom-up. So that we know how to instruct the parent or how the parents should react at the moment.

Realizing Our Misinterpreatitions in Trauma-Informed Therapy

I feel like there can be a lot of misinterpretation, or Misunderstanding by parents, teachers, and therapists about what’s happening. I’m thinking about the example of the child who sneaks into the kitchen and eats half the dinner. I thought about children, I’ve worked with who hoard food in their rooms. Or they steal from a candy dish and put a bunch of the candy in their pocket. It’s intentional that they’re doing it, that they’re putting it in their pocket, but it’s based on an experience of deprivation where they don’t know when that’s going to happen again.

So how, how can we discern?

That is a great example of the underlying causality, right? So you have an in-the-moment behavior, which can be instinctive or purposeful. And then you have these body-up causes of behaviors that are gathered throughout the lifetime from the moment we’re born. Actually from in utero, right? Because you’re gathering experience, sensory experiences from the moment you are in gestation. And then from the moment you’re born, you’re gathering experiences.

So a child who, for example, has had environmental deprivation early on for food. For example, who have been hungry a lot, who had a lot of food insecurity in their early years. Maybe they are adopted, put in a foster home, or something like that. The protective, adaptive nature of human beings is that we make predictions on how we can keep ourselves alive and safe. We do this based on subconscious past experiences and conscious-past experiences.

So many of the children that I’ve worked with trauma histories or histories of toxic stress will have those kinds of behaviors. They may hoard toys, they may hoard food. They may do behaviors that can look to the teacher or to the parent as “odd”. I’m wanting parents to know that there isn’t such a thing as odd behavior. This is because they make sense to the child’s nervous system and to the child’s history of distress.

How do we understand children’s behavior in a healthy way?

It can be hard to hear when children’s behavior is attributed to defiance. Whether they’re just being manipulative. Or they looked me right in the eye and then they did exactly what they weren’t supposed to. Rather than seeing them as manipulative, therapists can feel compassionate for the child. When I think about what could be driving their behavior based on a need to get a survival or an attachment need to be met or to feel safe. But it’s common for teachers to be left out of it because they’re not, they’re not in the same kind of relationship with the child as a parent is.

With a parent that’s often like they’ve never had any trauma or there are no attachment problems. Families instead say we have a happy household here. So they might not realize they need to implement trauma-informed parenting. While the therapists always go back to like this child didn’t come out of the womb, wanting to be difficult, you know, they just were born.

What Can Parents Do in Trauma-Informed Parenting?

Understanding the behavior serves a purpose. That compassion for that behavior, if you shift the lens from thinking that everything is limit setting or negative attention. Something I need to teach the child a lesson because that’s what I often thought is like if I don’t teach you right now, you’re, you’re not gonna learn. I’m not gonna raise you upright. You’re not going to learn what I need you to learn, but then you’re going to go out there in the world and become a criminal and go to jail.

However, when we look at behaviors from a new lens from this lens of compassion, we can see that. Here’s what I want parents to know, and a therapist to know who is working with parents. who’ve had, who’s done the best job they can. There’s no outright, what one would consider a traditional view of trauma in their house, right? That children have had enough to eat. The parents have read all the books and everyone’s doing great. And yet they come to our offices with children who are having very challenging, disruptive behaviors.

How Can You Help?

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The idea is called neuroception. It’s Dr. Stephen Porges’ word for the subconscious detection of safety and threat, which he coined in 2004. He tells us that everybody’s perception of what their nervous system codes are safe or threatening is subjective. So you can have a perfectly amazing parent. I’ve worked with hundreds and hundreds of parents who are so amazing and have children with behavioral challenges. The child’s perception of the threat hasn’t been taken into consideration. Due to the fact that it’s invisible, the threats invisible. Let’s consider the iceberg. There are millions of causes for disruptive behaviors that are caused by the neuroception of threat under the tip of the iceberg.

Sensory Craving? Over-Reacitivity? All a part of Trauma-Informed Parenting

One big category is sensory. There are many children whose disruptive behaviors start at around 12 to 15 months or around age two. If they started young there’s a chance that the child may have under or over-reactivity or sensory craving to one of the senses. This is a, one of them, about 16 to 17% of children have some sort of funkiness in their sensory processing. That is something that pediatricians generally don’t know about. Parents certainly don’t know about it. That would be an example of a perfectly amazing parent and a child who does these weird things like attack their siblings or say bad words. They might even have all these tantrums and start to yell and scream. The parent is like, wait, I’m just trying to wash your hair.

So that sensory piece is one. Another one is the constitutional genetic component. Some children have more sensitivity inside of their gut, it’s called interoception. So inside of your body, some children are more sensitive. Early on you’ll usually see these kinds of kids who are less easy to regulate to co-regulate. As well as have trouble settling their little bodies down and the parents are amazing.

The mind and the body are connected!

Additionally, we must note that the mind is not separate from the body. We’re not disembodied heads and yet we were trained on how to talk to people. Yammer, Yammer, Yammer. Let me talk about this. And here’s where I, again, I want therapists to know that I believe where the field of child psychology is going is not individual therapy for children, except for, in some cases. Where the parents or caregivers may have a toxic relationship with the child. However, for the most part, we are really looking at a coach as a parent coaching model and not sticking kids in a room with a stranger to talk about their problems.

Bessel Van Der Kolk said making kids talk to adults, trauma victims talk about their problems is not the way to go. That oftentimes just makes it worse. So I know it’s the Holy grail of psychotherapy, but honestly, we have to start looking at some of this stuff and add more body activities. That’s where the nervous system comes in. It’s that feedback from the body to the brain and the brain to the body that you’re okay, you’re safe.

Rewiring with Trauma-Informed Parenting

Additionally, we need to rewire people’s, and children’s perceptions of safety as soon as possible. Right now children are getting messages, even if their parents are cool and understanding. That behaviors have meaning at school right now. They’re getting labeled, they’re getting sent to the office, they’re getting put on 504’s which are those specialized plans for emotional problems for kids. The education system is even more outdated than mental health. With all due respect to teachers listening to this. This is so much compassion and self-compassion, we need to heap on ourselves, but also understand that. That the basics of the nervous system, particularly the autonomic nervous system, are not very well integrated into our treatment modules, and our treatment techniques.

It’s not about parents being bad. It’s not about teachers being bad. Also, teachers and parents were all once children and that’s part of it is that we didn’t get this, so we don’t have it to use to help us understand what’s going on with our kids. We were probably told, I mean, I know I was told by very well-meaning parents. Don’t worry about it, oh, there’s nothing to worry about. If I was scared, it’s like, just think about happy thoughts, you know.

Parenting is shifting now Thanks to Trauma-Informed Parenting

Now, many generations are moving with the positive parenting movement, there’s a lot more acceptance. There’s a lot more ability for parents to sit with a child who’s struggling, you know, so it’s, we have come to a certain amount of ways, but we also are, are still involved in the kind of unknowingly and again, I did it myself, but unknowingly shaming children for aggressive behaviors, when what we should be doing is acknowledging, acknowledging the pain they’re in, instead of like how could you do that to your brother? You know, how could you, how could you break my plate? And of course, we’re, we’re angry.

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How Can Parents Help Children Become More Regulated

Stephen Porges, developed the Polyvagal Theory and this whole concept of neuroception. t’s our emotional tone. So microseconds before we start to talk to the children. And by the way, if a child is in the fight or flight system of the sympathetic nervous system, there are three main systems, but the fight or flight is when they’re kicking, hitting, screaming, throwing, and yelling. They’re not attenuated, to listen. Anyway, the system is not in a listening phase, so it’s pretty useless to try to talk then. Even when a child is calm, the first thing that comes to a child isn’t what we say. It’s how we are.

So we moved from teaching to being first. We want to just be present and the look on her face, the tone of our voice, our body posture in mammals, those three things convey our autonomic state to children. So as Deb Dana says, she’s a Polyvagal Therapist. She says we need to befriend our nervous system so that the child will befriend their nervous system. So point number one, start with how you are and take real good care of yourself. Take a few deep breaths. But before you start saying something to the child, make sure that you’re in a calm state.

Neurodevelopmental Framework & Trauma-Informed Parenting

The second piece is that in a neurodevelopmental framework, and I know that’s a big word, but here’s a kind of, I talk about it as building the phases of building a house beyond behaviors. Here’s how we build a child’s ability to self-regulate. It starts with making sure their body is physiologically regulated, which then allows them to engage with us and to be open to us so that the body feels calm, and opens up what’s called the social engagement system. And then the social engagement system is what leads to back and forth communication. Stanley Greenspan is doing weeder work, the DIR model. So co-regulation is sharing our calm, healthy, nervous system with a child or with a parent, if you’re a therapist, we share our nervous system with our clients, with our parents. Right? We share it through our physiological state.

Co-Regulation Matters!

Co-regulation is basically coming alongside another person. We do it very naturally with babies, right? We have to. They can’t survive without co-regulation, but once they become toddlers, we think that they should be able to be more self-regulatory. And there is something called the expectation gap. The zero to three foundations did a great study. It showed that most parents don’t realize that children need far more co-regulation than we’re giving them. We think that they should be able to regulate their own physiology, their own state, but they really can’t. And so even though they can talk and walk, they look like little adults. They’re not, they’re very, very vulnerable little, little ones that need our love, our attention, and our giving them the benefit of the doubt.

Compassion is Key!

It’s important for caregivers and parents to not assume the worst intentions and to recognize a sense of compassion. It takes practice and as a parent, it will take some trial and error. The truth is it can be challenging to not be triggered as a caregiver because your child is often a projection of yourself. And it feels like there is so much at stake here. However, teaching ourselves to be self-compassionate and being that way to our kids can take us so much farther than you could ever imagine. If you want some additional resources, the work by Kristin Neff It’s so synergistic, compassion, self-compassion, self-regulation, and, as it turns out all those things also help.

Find a Trauma Therapist Near Me!

Understanding attachment and sensory 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

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Publish Date

April 23, 2022

About the Author

Laura Reagan, LCSW-C

Laura Reagan, LCSW-C is an integrative trauma therapist and owner of a group practice, the Baltimore Annapolis Center for Integrative Healing. She is also the host of Therapy Chat and Trauma Chat podcasts and the founder of the Trauma Therapist Network, a website for learning information about trauma and finding resources and help for trauma.

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