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Author Details

Amber

Name: Amber Elliott

Job Title: Clinical Psychologist and PAFCA Creator

Current place of work: The Child Psychology Service, Lichfield and PAFCA

Adopted and fostered children often struggle to understand and manage their own emotions. Their emotions can be changeable and extreme. For example you may have had experience of your child getting very angry for no apparent reason or becoming really excited very quickly, perhaps leading to boisterous and/or hyper behaviour. This is generally tough for adults to deal with but to tackle it effectively it’s important to first understand why it happens. The key to making sense of emotional regulation problems is to think about how we learn to regulate our emotions when we’re babies.

Babies are chaotic bundles of emotion. Just think about what babies do and how they make most adults feel. Babies’ emotions are extreme and intense with very few shades of grey. They cannot calm their emotions for themselves and so move quickly from one feeling to another.

Learning to calm ourselves and moderate our emotions is an extremely sophisticated skill. It is not something we automatically develop through maturity. It is one of the seemingly mystical skills that we learn via sensitive, attuned care, in particular the sensitivity of our carer and their ability to accept, understand and respond to our emotional states in infancy.

In short, babies internalise the reassurance and emotional coping skills that their carers show them. Until they can do this they borrow the skills, in fact the right frontal lobe, of their attuned carer, a bit like an external hard-drive might be used with a computer. This enables children to experience the full range of emotional intensity with help and support. Babies in sensitive, attuned relationships experience an emotional thermostat that is fully developed and goes all the way from 1 to 10 with plenty of stops in between.

 

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In order to understand the way in which emotional regulation is learned and internalised, the following Toilet Training Analogy can often be useful (1).

At the beginning of the toilet training process children will experience a sensation in their bodies that might make them wriggle around a bit and maybe grab at their groin. The child has no concept that this uncomfortable feeling is indicative of the fact that he needs a wee.

Whilst toilet training, you, as the adult taking responsibility for the training, take care to notice your child’s behaviour, read what’s going on in their body via empathy, and then make the link between the child’s sensation and what it means e.g. “ok, I think you need a wee” and then take them to the toilet or get the potty out.

In doing this you are empathising with the child’s internal world, giving language to their subjective experience and providing them with a practical way of dealing with their internal problem.

In a multitude of different ways, this is the way in which attentive and empathic parents help babies to understand their internal worlds, including their emotions. For example, a parent may read from their infant’s body language that they are experiencing something; maybe the baby is focussing their attention over the parent’s shoulder. The parent will interpret what the child is experiencing internally, e.g. fascination with a moving light, and the parent conveys to the baby that their experience makes sense and that it is important, e.g. the adult redirects their own gaze towards the moving light and moves the child so they can see the light better, the adult will use an animated, smiley face and say something like “Wow! That’s shiny isn’t it!”

Over time, this repetitive process, of providing an adult mind as a mirror to the baby’s own mind, teaches the infant what their internal world looks like, what it means, how it makes sense and therefore how they can communicate about it with others i.e. they are emotionally regulated.

So, that’s how we develop the ability to manage our emotions effectively. Knowing this helps to better understand the problems that arise when a child has not had the experience that they need to develop this ability.

Children who lack Emotional Regulation skills

Many fostered and adopted children struggle enormously to manage their emotions and so their emotions are still, as emotions always are in babies, chaotic and overwhelming. This is emotional dysregulation.

Children who have not experienced the emotional regulation of an in-tune primary carer can experience a limited range of emotional intensity, i.e. their emotional thermostat is limited to; either on or off or perhaps they only have access to the 7 to 10 range.

 

affect regulation containment insecure freindly

 

Adopted and fostered children often appear as though disconnected from their internal states because of a lack of early emotional regulation. As well as struggling with understanding their emotions, these are also the children who struggle to tell when they are hot or cold, or when they are hungry or full-up.

Such children can sometimes give the impression that their emotional expressions are in some way “fake”. The child’s emotions, in these cases, have been separated from a sense of the legitimacy of those emotions. i.e. unless babies’ emotions are accepted, acknowledged and sensitively responded to, they get feedback that their emotions are manipulative, self-indulgent and fake rather than as an understandable expression of emotional need.

It is no wonder then, that developmentally traumatised children have much greater difficulty in dealing with the relational challenge of being told off and other reward-punishment parenting strategies (any strategy that aims to shape a child’s behaviour via rewards or punishments). Using such strategies assumes that children can manage the emotional impact of disapproval, anger, excitement etc. within their most crucial relationship. However, for most of our children this crucial relationship is also the one in which they are the most vulnerable. It is for this reason that the way in which carers manage the behaviour of a traumatised child is so much more important than typical, reward-punishment parenting advice leads us to believe.

A traumatised child’s experience of dispute, confrontation and conflict in their relationship with their carer is inherently stressful and may make them dysregulate emotionally. They are expected to submit to the authority of a more powerful person. It will evoke all of the shadowy, disembodied memories of their past experiences of these types of interactions. It also, therefore, provides wonderful opportunities to offer children an empathic understanding of their experience of stress in relationships and for them to experience alternative feelings, over extended periods of time, in such relationships. It is this experience which enables children to manage their emotions for themselves. However, expecting a traumatised child to manage their emotions alone, no matter how old they are chronologically is, in most cases, enormously unrealistic; it is the equivalent of expecting a child who has grown up in France to speak English when brought to the UK. Both skills feel instinctive when a person has them but are alienating and isolating expectations if they haven’t.

PAFCA's Emotional Regulation Top 5 Tips

STOP! – REFLECT – EMPATHISE – DO

Treat emotional outbursts in your fostered or adopted child, even extreme anger, as an expression of a legitimate emotional expression, even when it appears fake and/or unnecessary. Try to avoid the temptation to squash it with reward-punishment thinking.

When behaviour has to be stopped (because it is dangerous) the strength of your love for your child must be as strongly (if not more strongly) communicated as your disapproval about the behaviour.

Work hard to try and get inside your child’s mind. This is the only way to understand how their emotionally dysregulated behaviour (extreme, seemingly irrational emotions) can be understood and responded to empathically. Even when you can’t come up with an explanation of how the emotional dysregulation makes sense, it is very important to accept the feeling and tell your child that you know it happened for a reason that you don’t yet understand.

Dysregulated behaviour will always have some historical/emotional and/or psychological sense behind it but it’s rarely obvious. It will make sense; as a reaction to their past experience, through their unconscious expectations of relationships etc. Once you have worked out a potential reason, tell them, without judgement how their emotional expression makes sense to you. It’s not a problem if you get it wrong, just keep thinking. Just the experience of having you try to understand is very powerful for children who haven’t had that experience in their early years.

Trying to apply reward-punishment thinking will seriously hamper your ability to search for, and empathise with, the cause of your child’s emotional dysregulation. Giving yourself permission to empathise rather than feeling you have to correct and/or discipline will create better understandings between you and your child and help you both to work much more effectively on the problem.

Reading List

  1. Why Can’t my Child Behave?

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