Skip to content

What’s Regulation Got to do With It? (Behavior)

January 27, 2014

Emotional Regulation- Keeping the Accelerator and the Brakes of Emotion in Balance. 
Daniel Siegel, MD- Parenting from the Inside Out.

When I explain emotional regulation to clients in my office, I summarize it as our ability to manage stress without “freaking out.” Most people can resonate with that description! Throughout the day, we experience countless stressors- from missing the alarm, to packing lunches, to rush hour traffic- and countless moments of recovery. Think for a moment about the last small stressor you experienced. Getting out the door is a good example for me. We rush rush rush, getting more and more amped up, and then once we are in the car and backing out of the driveway, the recovery starts to set in. What’s really happening in our bodies is that the accelerator is pressed as I rush around (my sympathetic nervous system) and then the brakes are gently and evenly applied once I am finally on our way (the parasympathetic nervous system). Bottom line is that all day long, the accelerator and breaks are ebbing and flowing in a (mostly) gentle and even way, preventing us from “freaking out.” We all have a “window” within which we can tolerate a certain amount of stress- our “window of tolerance.” Really smart scientists and therapists like Pat Ogden and Daniel Siegel talk a lot about the “window of tolerance.” I didn’t come up with it J When I explain regulation and the window of tolerance in my office, I draw something that looks like this on my white board:

I didn’t come up with this graphic, either. I got it from Peter Levine, PhD, and his website: I DID make this particular graphic so that I could color-code it to match a power-point presentation I’m working on!

Anyway. Some days, we have nice, wide windows of tolerances. (Yes, I made that plural). Some days we don’t and the same stress I handled yesterday without any difficulty makes me freak out today. Like some days I can handle the morning chaos no problem. Some days….not so much. So my window of tolerance is sometimes narrower, sometimes wider. This depends on all sorts of different factors- like chronic stress, sleep, being hungry, the highest cedar pollen count in the history of Austin, TX, etc. Typically my window of tolerance can move back to baseline fairly easily.

This is NOT true for your child of trauma (or you- the one who lives with and parents trauma). Your child’s window of tolerance looks more like this:

The blue lines move closer together….as illustrated by the doted orange line. Well….there is an obvious problem with this. Now, regular ole stress pushes the child right outside their window of tolerance. Most parents in my office can relate to this. Their window looked a lot like the first one BEFORE they became trauma parents. Now, their window more closely resembles the second one.

One more complicating factor. Unresolved trauma comes out looking more like this:










The red jagged line? Yeah, that looks like your kid doesn’t it? There is no even accelerator and brake being applied. This is ‘pedal to the medal’ followed up by a jarring ‘slam on the brakes.’ You’ll notice sometimes the brakes get stuck, and sometimes the accelerator gets stuck. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know!!!! (Again, I did not come up with this graphic. I remade it so the colors matched a power-point presentation I’m giving!

But here’s the piece I think is realllllly important to consider. When children are inside their windows, they are open for relationship. They can use their prefrontal cortex to make good decisions, use some delayed gratification, have impulse control. Really! It’s when your child leaves their window that behaviors start to go south. And being dysregulated doesn’t necessarily mean yelling, screaming, or throwing a huge fit. The path of dysregulation includes opposition, defiance, verbal aggression, physical aggression.

It’s easier to look at a fit-throwing, leg-kicking, obscenity-screaming kiddo and say “Yup….that kid’s dysregulated.” It’s a lot harder to look at the oppositional “NO! I won’t do my homework!” kid and label that dysregulated.

But it IS. And get this- this is true even of non-traumatized kids (and adults). I’ll write more about this, but this article just got really long, so I think it’s time to pause and digest.

The next time your child isn’t compliant….consider looking at the behavior through the lens of regulation. Re-regulate your child instead of punishing, consequencing, lecturing, demanding, or threatening, and see what happens.

PS Obviously for some really traumatized or really dysregulated kids, they live in a chronic state of dysregulation and ‘reregulate’ is way easier said than done. I get it. I’ll write more on that.


Like what you read here?  To get more trauma momma support, click here to sign up for my monthly newsletter!

Robyn Gobbel, LCSW is a child and family therapist in Austin, Texas specializing in adoption, trauma, and attachment counseling. She is the founder of the Central Texas Attachment & Trauma Center.

Regulate, Refuel, and Reconnect- A Conference for Parents in Austin, TX ~ April 4.  Save the date- you won’t want to miss this!

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: