About twenty seconds after getting home from a visit to the orthodontist, my son was criticizing his sister. Before I even had my shoes off he was starting a fight.
I sighed. Here we go again. I had to admit it was impressive speed this time.
As I paused for a moment to collect myself before joining the situation, it dawned on me.
It’s not one of his food reactions. It’s not his blood sugar. He’s not even actually mad at his sister. In fact, it has nothing to do with her. It’s his nervous system!
Signs of a Dysregulated Nervous System in Children
How did I kow my son’s nervous system was dysregulated? I’ve been studying the nervous system for a while now. And there are some key signs of nervous system dysregulation to watch for. These include:
- angry outbursts
- mood swings
- coping behaviors like OCD, escaping reality in books and video games
- mysterious pain or repeated illness
- sensitivity to lights, sounds, touch, or crowds
- constant fatigue
- stomach pain or upset
- diarrhea or constipation
- food cravings or appetite changes
- difficulty focusing or completing tasks
- frequent urination
- hormone imbalance
- anxiety or panic
- constant slouching
- withdrawl from normal activities
Any of these can happen periodically with no cause for concern. But if you start noticing any of these happening regularly or in relation to certain events, situations, or environments, it could be nervous system dysregulation.
What is the Autonomic Nervous System?
Nervous system regulation in kids refers to the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS).
Some functions of the body happen by choice. Like deciding to get up and walk or playing the piano. But some functions happen without you even thinking about them. Nervous system regulation focuses on the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) – the automatic body functions, such as breathing, heart beat, body temperature, sweating, and digestion – the stuff happening all the time to keep you alive without needing to think about it. Can you imagine trying to tell your heart to beat all day long?!
The ANS is sort of like a ladder. You want to spend most of your time on the middle rung, where you feel safe – not too high, not too low. This is called the parasympathetic state. Some refer to it as the rest and digest state or social engagement state where you feel calm and relaxed yet fully alive and energetic…and all of those automatic functions run smoothly.
When you encounter something your body perceives as stressful or overwhelming, your body initially goes into the stress resposne (up) and then either stays there or goes down the ladder to handle the situation.
Going up means you enter a fight or flight state (also called a sympathetic state). This is a HIGH energy state. It should be short-lived, so you can get back to the middle of the ladder and feel calm.
Going down can mean you are really scared, and instead of fighting or running, you simply freeze. You don’t know what to do, so you do nothing. This can also be referred to as trauma or overwhelm. It is the opposite of the high energy state. The bottom of the ladder is a place of exhaustion, a very LOW energy state.
Why Children Have a Dysregulated Nervous System
Each of these positions on the ladder is essential for survival. They keep a child’s body safe. But sometimes the ANS gets stuck at the top or the bottom of the ladder and struggles to get back to the middle – the calm state. Sometimes a child’s body completely skips the middle and goes from the bottom to the top and back again. A child’s body is not sure what to do. Whether they are stuck at the top or the bottom, this is when a child feels the symptoms of dysregulation.
Why does this happen? An event or experience is the trigger for nervous system dysregulation. But it is an individual’s response to that experience that determines whether or not it will cause dysregulation.
For example, Jill and Tina are building a tower of blocks together. Lisa walks over and knocks the tower down for no reason. Jill laughs and thinks it’s funny. She’s ready to start the tower again. However, Tina feels sad and angry. She shouts at Lisa and then runs away crying.
Two kids in the same situation with very different responses. Jill remained in the middle of the ladder – the social engagement state. While Tina went into the fight or flight stress response. It wasn’t the event that caused the dysregulation. It was how the event was experienced by each child’s body and nervous system.
We are all created uniquely and have had different experiences in life. So what will cause nervous system dysregulation for each child is unique.
Practical Ways to Help Kids Regulate Their Nervous System
What’s important is not so much what triggered the dysregulation but how it is handled. Let’s look at two endings to this story.
Scenario 1: Tina runs away and finds her mom. As she stands there crying her mother says, “You don’t need to cry about that! It’s just some blocks. Go back over there and play.” And her mother goes back to talking with other moms.
Scenario 2: Tina runs away and finds her mom. As she stands there crying her mother pulls her close and holds her tight. She lets her cry as long as she needs. Then when Tina starts to settle down she asks her what happened. After listening to the full story her mother validates her feelings, “That made you feel sad to see your hard work undone. Sometimes I feel sad like that too.” Then they walk back to the blocks together and her mother sits and plays with her until she feels comfortable on her own.
In the first scenario Tina is left by herself with big emotions and feels shame about them. She might go into the freeze state and just sit by herself, alone and tired. She might also go back into the fight or flight response and try to get even with Lisa. Either way her body is learning not to feel sadness. It’s not safe and it will not allow her to be close to her mother.
In the second scenario Tina learns that she can express big emotions safely and her mother will help her come back to the middle of the ladder.
The key component here is safety. Feeling safe is the most important part of nervous system regulation for a child. And adults need to help young children experience that safety.
When my four-year-old is upset I never tell him, “That’s enough crying.” Instead I hold him and let him cry until he has fully experienced and expressed that emotion while feeling safe. Then we can talk about it and shift back to the calm state together. If you’ve ever experienced this with your child it’s a beautiful thing.
How Nervous System Dysregulation Can Cause Picky Eating in Kids
As you can probably gather by now, nervous system dysregulation is at the heart of many behaviors and symptoms. Picky, or selective, eating is no exception.
While picky eating seems like a personality issue or defiance, there is much more to it.
Kids are not born picky. There could be a physical reason a child can’t eat well, such as tongue tie or oral sensory processing disorder. You can learn more about this in my Mouth Assessment Guide.
But if the mechanics are working well, there is usually something that triggers the nervous system to create the symptom of picky eating.
When my youngest daughter was born she struggled with breastfeeding. She reacted to so many foods (that I was eating) that eating meant pain. She began to fear eating. And it created a downward spiral into the freeze/trauma state. She and I were both very dysregulated.
It took many years to get her to not fear food. She is a good eater now; however, she still goes into the overwhelm state very easily. If anything is hard she shuts down and says, “I can’t!” Which is true. In the overwhelm state the logical/reasoning part of the brain stops functioning.
So the next time your child refuses food, don’t get angry. That will perpetuate the dysregulation. Instead, try to figure out how your child’s nervous system is responding.
- Are the lights too bright?
- Is there too much noise?
- Are there too many textures?
- Are there too many new foods?
- Is everything mixed together?
- It may simply be too much food on the plate!
Eating can be a very overwhelming experience for a child. Help make it a safe space and watch the picky eating subside.
Somatic Experiences for Kids
The most effective way to help a child become regulated is by allowing him or her to experience safetey and containment. This is done through somatic experience exercises.
I recently heard a doctor say, “You have to feel in order to heal.” This is such a profound statement. A child can not talk their way to safety or think their way to safety. They have to actually feel safety in the body. This is accomplished through somatic experiences.
What makes a child feel safe? A common experience is receiving a hug. This may come from a trusted adult. But sometimes even that does not feel safe, depending on the relationship and the degree of dysregulation. And that’s OK.
A child can give himself or herself a hug in order to allow the body to feel a sense of safety and support.
Another option is to support the heart. Simply place the child’s hands over his or her heart to feel loved and supported.
There are many simple somatic exercises that kids can do on their own. Try this Superhero exercise with your kids!
Helping Kids With Parts Work
Another nervous system regulation concept is parts work. Some refer to it as Internal Family Systems.
A child may feel conflicting emotions in certain circumstances. For example, Max sees the neighbors playing baseball. Part of him wants to go join them. But part of him is too scared and wants to stay home where it feels safe.
These opposing parts can be confusing. Which one is right? Which do I choose?
Each part has a purpose. Helping your child understand his or her parts can be helpful for decision-making and for avoiding coping behaviors.
Self-Regulation Strategies for Kids
Nervous system regulation is so important for kids. It’s also important for the caregivers to be regulated. Parenting or caring from a place of dsyregulation will impact the child’s nervous system. So what are some simple strategies for self-regulation in kids?
There are quite a few! These include:
- Tapping (EFT) (learn how HERE)
- Spinal flush (learn how HERE)
- Somatic exercises (like THIS and THIS)
- Parts work
- Deep breathing
- Rhythmic movement
- Gargling water
- Going barefoot outside or wearing barefoot shoes
- Jumping on a trampoline or rebounder
- Receiving long hugs
- Weighted blanket
- Sensory swing
- Wrap up in a warm blanket
- Listening to music
Allow your child to decide what nervous system regulation tool or practice sounds best to him or her.
How to Help Your Child with Nervous System Regulation
As an adult you can be the silent observer. You can help figure out what triggers your child’s nervous system and sends it into the fight/flight or freeze state.
While we were at the orthodontist my son told me his stomach hurt because he was so nervous. Of course he was able to hold it together while we were there and for the car ride home where he was contained. But as soon as he walked into the house, into a familiar environment, his stress response kicked in.
He went into the high energy fight state and needed to take action instead of feeling the uncomfortable nerves any longer. Unfortunately his big sister was the first person he saw. So she took the brunt of his dysregulation. This happens often. And it’s not fair to her.
I am working on teaching my son how to recognize his own dysregulation and what he can do about it. He is eleven, so he is old enough to start recognizing things himeself. In the mean time I help facilitate his nervous system regulation.
I remove him from the situation. Then we talk through what he feels would be most helpful in the moment. One of his favorite practices is to get cozy in bed with a weighted blanket. This allows him to feel safe and supported while his body comes down from the stress response.
It is often followed by the freeze response, meaning he has very little energy. He is learning how to come out of the freeze response as well. It’s a learning process, and he is gradually becoming more and more aware of his own reactions to triggers and events. This anger actually comes out whenever he has been around other people and then comes back home. So teaching him how to stay regulated while in social settings will help prevent the stress response afterwards.
Kids will not be perfect at nervous system regulation. But starting at a young age will give them the tools to continue learning as they grow.
A great place to begin teaching your child about nervous system regulation is the Nutritional Navigation eCourse! There are seven modules dedicated to the nervous system. It’s that important! Learn more HERE.