Growth & Development
The development of self-regulation is rooted in the relationship/attachment system that exists between an infant and his or her caregiver. Babies are not born with the capacity to regulate their feelings, actions or bodies. They rely completely on their caregivers to attune to their distress. When caregivers can recognize their own stress, stay calm and then provide the nurturing and structure needed to alleviate their baby’s distress they have used their secure relationship to help the child regulate.
In the first three years of a child’s life, the child is dependent on his or her parents to interpret their distress and support them to calm down and regulate. This is a process known as co-regulation and its growth and development is closely aligned with the relationship and attachment between a parent and child.
Beyond the child’s third birthday, the child begins to meaningfully use words to identify feelings and thoughts. Their emerging language skills then begin to help them think, wait, problem solve, ask for help and remember ways to calm themselves down when they are distressed. Initially infants need a tremendous amount of co-regulation from others to manage distress. They will need less and less adult support as children as their own capacity to regulate increases.
In the first three years, the role of the parent is to help the child recover from stress and prevent the child from feeling overloaded. Common stressors might include hunger, fatigue, worry, fear, pain, being alone or sensory overload (voice tone, anger, lighting, temperature).
Toxic stress occurs when the child experiences distress too frequently, too quickly, when they can’t adapt to “normal” challenges and transitions, when it takes a long time to recover (more than 10 to 20 minutes) or when distress affects a healthy sleep cycle. Toxic stress also interrupts a child’s ability to regulate if the caregiver has not been successful or mostly consistent in soothing the child. Children who have experienced toxic stress will react more frequently and more intensely with little or no understood provocation. They will react with actions that fall into the categories of fight (physical or verbal), flight (running behaviours) or freeze/immobilize (hiding, spacing out, daydreaming). Children who experience this level of toxic stress tend to have disruptions to normal sleep patterns so that they sleep too much, sleep too little or can’t get into a sleep pattern that allows them to feel rested. These children often are defined by what is seen as “bad behaviour” when the root of the reaction is that their needs have not been met and their brain interprets that as dangerous. The brain then reacts with fighting, flight or freezing.
The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study identifies a number of parental risk factors including involvement in abuse, neglect, substance use, separations or loss, and criminality that might compromise parents’ ability to notice and offer support to their child.
If a child presents any of the following behaviours, consider this a red flag:
► Shows distress easily
► Has difficulty adapting to changes
► Has difficulty making transitions
► Takes more than 20 minutes to calm down after being upset
► Sleeps too much for their age
► Sleeps too little for their age
► Reacts frequently with little or no understanding of what provoked them
► Reacts with intensity
► Engages in physical fighting, verbal aggression and poor social skills
► Runs away
► Hides from
► Daydreams more than usual