Working with Children with Attachment Disorder: Regulation Theory

By | 2017-03-05T00:00:20+00:00 March 5th, 2017|

What is regulation theory?

Since frequent emotional regulation is often brought up when discussing the issue of children who have attachment disorder, in this post we will be looking at regulation theory, its relationship with attachment disorder, and finally we will apply practical use of regulation theory to children with attachment disorder!

Emotional regulation refers to the part of the nervous system that is able to calm us down when we become nervous. On a more scientific level, it is our ability to shift from an activated sympathetic nervous system to a relaxed parasympathetic system; it is shift from feeling scared to feeling safe.

There are two prominent forms of emotional regulation: auto-regulation (or also known as, self-regulation) and co-regulation.

Auto-regulation occurs when an individual is able to calm themselves down into a relaxed state after becoming stressed out about something.  

Co-regulation occurs when two individuals are able to achieve relaxation and a sense of safety within the context of their interaction and relationship. Co-regulation is discussed thoroughly in the principles of Interpersonal Neurobiology with Daniel Siegel.  

One way to define attachment disorder is through the emotional regulation perspective. Through this lens, attachment disorder is where an individual becomes dysregulated in relationships, specifically when that individual is in a position of giving or receiving trust or love.  

The three various kinds of insecure attachment disorder will look differently, however, for all three, relationships are dysregulating. Avoidant styles will isolate and withdraw from others. Anxious styles will cling excessively to others. And disorganized attachment style will display a combination of both styles.

It is important to note, that all three of these insecure attachment disorders are a result of co-regulation that has gone awry during early childhood. Co-regulation happens between an infant and its mother, and this lays the foundation for auto-regulation.

Co-regulation is a relationship dance between an infant and its mother. This is where the mother helps the infant navigate through its emotional and nervous system responses to its environment, including relationships.

If this dance is off in some way, whether because of gross neglect, abuse, or a busy, stressed mom, that co-regulation will not happen. Unless this is later corrected with therapeutic parenting, this will result in both co-regulation and auto-regulation to be turned off for the remainder of the child’s life. Relationships will become stressful for the infant, a pattern that will continue for the rest of its life, and thus they will resort to various forms of auto-regulation in order to manage that stress.

Relationships are a part of all aspects of our lives, not only at home, but also at work and in any social activity. If relationships cause dysregulation, then this is a lot of stress on an individual’s nervous system. Here is more information on how to know when activation and dysregulation occur.

Whether in children or adults, one can see various forms of what seems like extreme and unhealthy behaviors. These are their attempts to auto-regulate their very dysregulated nervous systems. Those with secure attachments are able to pull from both co-regulation and auto-regulation resources and get that relief in ways that do not harm or sabotage themselves.

What might extreme or unhealthy ways of auto-regulation look like?  

Unhealthy patterns of auto-regulation most often include behaviors that are attempts to control.  A sense of control of people, places, and things provides a sense of safety; since it is vulnerability for children with attachment disorder that is the scariest position in which to be.

Individuals who feel completely out of control are going to fall apart and do anything they can to gain that control. They attempt to achieve control over other people, places, and things; they find this helps them to achieve control over their own activated nervous system and their emotions. For children, attempts to control can come out in physical, emotional, or psychological manner.

In physical control, children will exert physical force to cause fear in those around them.  Rages, throwing and breaking items, and physically hurting others are attempts to control out of a need to help themselves feel better.

In emotional control, children will be able to play with the emotions of others, making others angry, sad, or happy.  Depending on the background and prior experiences of the child, they may be quite “street-smart” at being able to know instinctively how to play others emotions to get what they need.

In psychological control, children will lie, triangulate relationships of those in authority, and otherwise manipulate. Much of this is done on such an instinctual level to help calm their own nervous system down; they feel that they are doing these things to survive.

These become the behaviors that seem crazy and extreme to parents of children with attachment disorder; therefore, make daily live very chaotic and difficult. It is dysregulating to live with a child with controlling behaviors The children are not able to communicate any of their internal happenings, so these behaviors come with no warning

Other behaviors that are apart of auto-regulation include other forms of control and directly affect the nervous system.

Eating disorders, both overeating and anorexia, are common ways used to self-regulate, because of their impact on the vagus nerve that runs down the esophagus and receives messages from the stomach. The vagus nerve is implicated with many biological functions in the body. You can learn more about the vagus nerve and its relationship with emotional regulation here.

Cutting and self-harm is another method of control that helps a person auto-regulate. Exercise, drugs, substances, and promiscuity are other methods of auto-regulation, due to their means of control and its direct effect on the nervous system.  

The good news is that these children can be healed so that these do not become their patterns for life! However, these issues will not heal on its own over time. Therapeutic parenting is what we call the intentional parenting principles and are methods that are used to help heal children. It is a method to go back and re-do the foundation of co-regulation that was missed during the infant stage. This will then reset their nervous system, and will allow for a new way of life to become natural to them.  

As a therapeutic parent, teacher, or caregiver, it will be vital for you to have a calm nervous system yourself. By widening your resources for co- and auto-regulation, you will not only be above their emotional ups and downs, but they will also perceive you as a strong and steady base to which they can attach to and heal with.

If you are concerned about your own relationship or self-calming patterns, I invite you to take a closer look at yourself during this process! Often people and situations come into our lives that can take us to the next level of healing.

What behaviors from your child have been the most chaotic and disruptive? Have you noticed times that your child does something chaotic, then stands back and appears quite calm?

Sharing Hope for Healing!

Dr. Aimie

Related: Two Lessons To Be A Parent Who Can Heal Their Child

One Comment

  1. Brenda June 2, 2017 at 9:59 am - Reply

    As a parent, personal coach and partner in an intimate relationship, this has been one of the most important articles I’ve read in a long time. Thank you! I look forward to learning more.

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