Some children are both hyperaroused and dissociative depending on the situation. They may be activated by stressful life events and act out behaviorally. When the situation becomes too much they collapse into dissociation. This wide swing makes it extremely difficult for parents to follow. It seems as though they are on a wild ride over a little issue. This is also why some traumatized children are incorrectly diagnosed as bipolar.
I frequently talk with parents about noticing where their child is on this chart. The parent needs to become the co-regulator so that when a child starts to get a little elevated he/she can help him calm rather increase the child’s stress and cause more problems.
Experienced parents have learned to notice little behaviors or mannerisms that alert them to impending difficulties. A child may start to pick at his fingers, tap his foot or bite his lip. This may be a subtle sign that he is getting frustrated and is starting into hyperarousal where if pushed further he may become aggressive, defiant and completely out of control. When sternly corrected at this stage he may become distressed to the point of collapse into dissociation where he curls up in a ball and checks out; numb to those around him.
As a therapist I have learned to watch for subtle clues in my clients behavior. These clues clearly inform me if a client is ready to explode or check out. Successful therapy depends on my ability to follow the clues and keep my client regulated. If he is twisting his hands together I know not to push but provide a regulating activity like squeezing play dough.
When he begins to look tired and numb I provide him with stimulating activities like tossing a ball. I take on the responsibility for regulation since most of my clients do not have the ability to regulate themselves. In this setting the child is able to do difficult work.
Being part of a family or succeeding at school is also very difficult work for traumatized kids. They can be productive only if a parent is supporting them in regulation. This does not prevent a parent from correcting or disciplining a child it only informs the times a child can learn from these conversations or consequences. If he is in hyper or hypo arousal his brain is not available to receive instruction. In addition the best instruction ever is learning how to regulate with a loving and attuned parent.
The chart and the information in this blog come from Dr. Bruce Perry. For more information you can log onto his you tube channel. If you would like to read more about the Center’s work with children click on the link.