All smiles, three-year-old Lilly is calm and playful as mom searches through the grocery store isles. One more stop to make before heading home. Lilly spots a snack. Quickly scooting past, mom explains why she can’t have that overly priced sugary-filled snack. In a matter of moments, this day shifts into a familiar scenario of a child’s reaction in hearing the word “no”. Crying, screaming, kicking, and the good ole pouty face are all employed to help take a stand against mom’s decision.
When we are thwarted from something we want, we feel frustrated, such as Lilly did. We sometimes judge this behavior in children as bad. We get frustrated with them (remember this for later)* and we can feel ashamed or embarrassed when they are screaming or crying in public. We may even think something is wrong with them. I am here to tell you that there is nothing wrong with your child. What if I told you that your child was doing exactly what their bodies were designed to do? Let me explain…
Let’s look at Lilly’s reaction from a nervous system perspective. The nervous system, which includes the brain, spinal cord and nerves throughout the body, controls all the actions of our body. It becomes activated when we perceive a challenge or threat in our environment. Lilly’s nervous system became activated when she perceived not getting her snack as a challenge (which to a three-year-old, it sure is!). When this happens, we have two choices. These choices are based on our perceptions on whether or not we feel like we can do something about the challenge. If we believe we can do something about it, we are designed to go into a Fight, Flight or Freeze response. If we believe we cannot do anything about it, we go into a State of Collapse.
Looking through this lens, Lilly felt like she could do something about her perceived challenge. We know this because she demonstrated fight mode, and that is positive! Reacting to a perceived challenge in her environment is all that was happening. That’s it. This is an understanding that Synergetic Play Therapy (SPT) utilizes to help children in therapy.
Ok, now I know that my child’s reaction is a normal and healthy nervous system response – now what?
Regulation – Helping the child to regulate their feelings.
The goal of regulation is not to avoid or to quickly stop feeling. We help the child regulate so they can move towards the feeling, rather then away from it. Research shows when we name the child’s experience out-loud, and model what we do with the feeling, for example taking a deep breath, it actually helps to tame it. Avoiding it can cause the feeling to either get bigger or it to be numbed. From the SPT perspective, regulation is a moment of mindfulness and connection to the self in order to move towards and through the feeling being experienced. When we do not regulate, we do not fully integrate it within our brains. This is why you can see your child struggle with the same emotions/situations, over and over again.
Humans learn the quickest through observation. Babies learn regulation through repeated experiences with their caregivers. For example, when a two-year-old is frustrated, they do not have the capacity or language to say – “You know what mom, when you took that toy away from me it really caused me frustration. Can you help me with this feeling?” How then, does a two-year-old learn what to do with this feeling? They may brilliantly offer that information to mom or dad, by creating that feeling inside them, so they can observe what is done with it – they watch you work it!* Remember when Lilly was frustrated in the grocery store? Think of this as her attempt at learning what to do with the feeling by creating it in mom, so she can watch mom work it! How brilliant! If mom said, “I feel frustrated too” and took a deep breath Lilly may mirror that regulation.
Learning about the nervous system and how it relates to the behaviors we see in children, has the ability to change our perceptions about a child’s behaviors or reactions. In doing so, my hope is that it opens up more compassion and understanding. This is a tiny glimpse into the wonderful research based perspective of Synergetic Play Therapy.
Synergetic Play Therapy combines theory from neuroscience, attachment, attunement, nervous system regulation, and mindfulness to create a way of supporting children in therapeutic play.