It’s so easy to forget that what drives a kid’s behavior is not related to their character, but their nervous system. When it comes to working with them, whether as an educator, a coach, or a parent, understanding their nervous system can’t be overlooked.
The nervous system comprises your brain, spinal cord, and connecting nerves. It’s responsible for controlling movement and sending messages back and forth from all parts of the body that impact how we think, feel, and act. In other words, it’s the operating system for our life in the world — how we experience it and live in it.
Problems occur when a kid’s nervous system gets out of whack, or dysregulated, which happens a lot throughout childhood and certainly throughout adolescence. You’re probably very familiar with the concept of fight or flight — natural responses to stressful situations. Experts would add to those responses and include freeze (or hide) and fawn (people pleasing to avoid conflict). Those are protective responses to either external stress or internal agitation.
When a kid’s nervous system is out of whack (fancy science term: dysregulated), their inner world is in turmoil.
They feel agitated, irritable, perhaps anxious, afraid, or angry. They are highly motivated to resolve that turmoil, and they’ll do whatever it takes and whatever they typically do in terms of their patterns of response. Rarely do they really understand what’s happening inside of them or have accessible coping skills to handle it well.
A kid’s dysregulated nervous system is often a near-constant problem. It impacts how they feel, how they interact with peers, their academic performance, and the choices they make. It might even have drastic consequences.
According to psychotherapist and author Benjamin Fry, a dysregulated nervous system can lead people to search for relief through harmful substances.
He said, “When we experience overwhelm, we are driven to change our internal or external environment to make ourselves feel safer. When we live in dysregulation, we are likely to use maladaptive coping methods to deal with our overwhelming feelings. Those struggling with addiction are dysregulated, so they search for immediate, short-term solutions to their problems.”
The more we can help kids understand what’s happening inside their brains and bodies and guide them to adopt effective coping strategies to deal with their inner discomfort, the more likely they’ll thrive as adults.
They’ll be less likely to develop unhealthy patterns to escape and more likely to handle significant challenges that come their way.
How do you help a kid regulate their nervous system?
Here are 4 ways you can help:
1. Put on your oxygen mask: Kids are hyper-attuned to the adults in their life. Even if you use all the right words and the tone of your voice is calm, if you’re dysregulated yourself, they will pick up on it and respond accordingly. For many kids, nothing is more triggering to their nervous system than being around an agitated adult.
So, take care of yourself and pay attention to your inner world. When you get out of whack, deal with it appropriately, the same way you hope they would. Take a lap around the block, call a good friend, do a meditation exercise, spend time in nature, or crank up your favorite music.
Take this further by modeling how you cope with your own dysregulation. If appropriate, you could share how you’re feeling about something and what you need to feel better.
2. Teach skills: Understanding the nervous system and its many responses is teachable. Teachers often share quick thoughts and tips, and they facilitate exercises with their students to help them understand themselves better. It’s not their job, yet they understand how important it is to empower kids with the tools they need to stay regulated.
3. Affirm: If you catch a kid making a healthy choice to regulate their nervous system on their own, maybe by taking a deep breath, going outside to exercise, dancing to music, or journaling their thoughts, affirm them! Celebrate their healthy choice and reinforce their decision to make a healthy response.
4. Give grace: Life is hard, especially for kids. They will get dysregulated; there’s no doubt about it. The problem is not their nervous system, though; it’s awareness. So give them grace when they’re having a hard time, and remember how normal it is.