Last week Theresa, Amy, and I were lucky enough to attend a training with Dr. Bruce Perry. In short, Dr. Perry is a brilliant guy who has spent years researching how the brain works and takes in information, and how therapists, teachers, and all of the systems that work with children in our country can use this information to better support children and their families. If you are interested, here is Dr. Perry’s bio: http://childtrauma.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/BDP_Bio_2013x.pdf
The brain is amazing and complicated, and there is still so much we don’t know about how it works. Dr. Perry identified one idea as being the most important he would share with us at the training (if he had to pick one “most important thing”) and I wanted to pass it along. Please note these ideas are all Dr. Perry’s with a few thoughts from me of how I have seen them play out in my own experience.
Our brains process information from the “bottom up.” So first, our brains have to be Regulated. This means our physical basic needs have been met- we are not hungry, thirsty, or tired. And we have to feel safe both physically and emotionally. What children (and adults) need to stay regulated is individual for every person, and depends on their temperament and the experiences they’ve had in their lives, both positive and negative. Here is a video in which Dr. Perry talks more about the need for regulation and ways children can regulate themselves (and we can help them): https://www.youtube.com/watch/?v=ZVRO7PdYRnM
After regulation comes Relationship. Our brains are hard wired to make connections with other people, and how strong the relationship we have with the person is will impact our ability to use our upper level brain and retain information. More thoughts from Dr. Perry about the importance of relationship: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g3cz-QlPkOo
Finally comes Reasoning. This is what we expect our children to do all day long when they are in school. This is what we expect when our child misbehaves and we say “why did you do that?” And according to Dr. Perry, it is extremely difficult if not impossible for us to use this part of our brain without regulation and relationship.
So, in short, talking to a child, teen, or even adult who is not regulated about a reasoning task is pointless. They can’t process information with the top part of their brain until the parts underneath it are taken care of. In fact, trying to reason or use a behavior modification program with a child who is not regulated or whom you do not have a relationship with will often escalate their behavior. Have you ever tried to “reason” with a child in the middle of a tantrum? Have YOU ever had a conversation with someone when you were really hungry and realized later you didn’t have a clue what they said to you? What teachers did you learn the most from when you were in school? For me, it was the ones I felt like I had a stronger relationship with. And do you want to talk and reason through difficult or personal things with someone you don’t have a strong relationship with?
According to Dr. Perry, once basic physical needs are taken care of the best ways to regulate ourselves are through rhythmic activities that give us some sensory input- listening to music, walking, running, rocking back and forth, drawing, even chewing gum. This will not be the same for every person, and you are probably thinking right now of what you choose for yourself or what your child prefers to “regulate” themselves. So many of the children and even youth I work with walk into my office and head straight for my sandbox just to put their hands in it and rhythmically pour and fill their hands with sand. Some walk or jump around my office during our entire session. They know when they need a little bit of regulation! Try building these into your day- right after school before homework time, or during times of the day that can be particularly challenging for your child. Don’t forget to build some regulation in for yourself, too! When I feel my level of stress start to build and I am having a hard time focusing, going for a run is what helps me get regulated again.
Once regulation is taken care of, don’t forget to focus on relationship. I often talk to the parents of the children I work with about the importance of building a positive relationship with your child. A strong relationship carries you both through the times that are difficult. Do activities with your child (looking at Facebook or texting while they are playing video games in the same room doesn’t count- play a game, get on the floor with the Barbies or cars, read a book together; whatever your child enjoys that lets the two of you interact), give them positive attention when they are working hard or making a good choice, and show them through your actions that you love them unconditionally and will be there consistently for them even when they make a mistake.
Only when these first two things are taken care of can your child have a chance of reasoning through situations. And even then, our upper “reasoning” parts of our brain don’t fully develop until we are well into adulthood. So when you ask your child why they acted a certain way and they say “I don’t know,” they truly may not know. And by the way, we therapists have to go through this process when we first start working with clients and sometimes during every session. Our job is to create a space where children (and adults) can feel safe, where they have access to things that allow them to regulate themselves, to build a caring, trusting relationship, and then do some “reasoning” through the issues they are dealing with.
This blog just summarizes the tip of the iceberg of Dr. Perry’s Neurosequential Model. If you are interested in reading more about it, visit www.childtrauma.org.