Why sensory regulation is so important for parents

How a request for bread turned me into the Hulk

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Sensory Regulation

How a request for bread turned me into the Hulk

The Story

‘Mum, can I have a piece of bread please? Can I have a piece of bread? Can I have some butter? Actually I can do it all by myself…’ Little hands are straight in the butter tub. Butter is suddenly smeared all over the kitchen worktop. The microwave is dinging with the porridge that you were originally making for breakfast. A musical toy robot is walking across the floor. Another child is calling you so you keep changing your attention and direction you are facing, while also trying to pack a lunch box. The dog is now trying to lick the butter off you while one of your hands is trying to clean the butter-covered child, while the other hand is now helping the other child into their shoes. The dog's water bowl gets knocked and spills all over the floor. You are wiping it up wondering when you will get to make yourself a cup of tea when suddenly … “Mum, can I have a piece of bread now?” This is the switch. The switch clicks and you see red. You stand up and shout, you’ve lost your temper and now resemble a parent version of the Hulk. We’ve all been there. You stop and see the small faces standing back looking shocked. They aren’t sure what caused the switch either. You carry the guilt of losing your temper even after you’ve dropped the little ones off at childcare and right into work with you.

Sensory regulation

Our sensory systems are collecting information all day from what’s going on around us and also what our organs inside our body are telling us. It takes all this information to our brain which works out a necessary response. We need our sensory systems to work in a regulated manner in order to not only carry out all of our daily tasks, but to keep us alive. At times our sensory systems can become overwhelmed and dysregulated. This can result in us responding in ways that you perhaps wouldn’t when you are feeling calmer and more regulated.

Why sensory regulation is specifically hard for parents

Let’s concentrate on a parent's sensory systems. They are trying to regulate themselves on possibly little sleep and potentially little energy This alone impacts regulation and makes parents regulation abilities harder. Not a good start when we haven’t even got into the nitty gritty yet… On top of this, they have additional sensory stimuli all day from those little hands pulling at their clothes, those flashing musical soul destroying toys, that only turn off if you remove the batteries with a screwdriver that you don’t own, additional voices asking for 300 snacks, dare we mention some whinging and in general exhausting constant interaction. Or is it children demonstrating risky nerve racking behaviour or exploring boundaries? Often this all takes place before you’ve even arrived at work for the day. There is no denying that a parent’s sensory systems are on overdrive. Added into this mix is the fact that children’s neurological systems are constantly developing, in fact this development continues right until early adulthood (that is why we promise you the Parent Health Hub is here for you every step of the way of parenthood!). A big part of this development is that children do not have the ability to regulate their own sensory systems and thus regularly look to adults around them to help regulate for them - also known as co-regulation.

Co-regulation

Co-regulation starts right from birth with the common practice of skin to skin contact. This simple act can prove how powerful co-regulation is, as it is proven to stabilise babies heart rate, breathing and temperature, improve their sleep and support parents' connection with their children (Dana, 2020; Jefferies, 2012). Co-regulation continues throughout children's development in areas such as helping our children work through all those developing emotions and responsive behaviours. Interestingly, we all co-regulate, even as adults (Porges, 2021). This is what keeps humans connected as our sensory systems naturally and unconsciously reads everyone else’s sensory state. Think of if you see someone panic, naturally your body scans for what they are panicking about or reads them with caution. This is a survival reaction and our sensory systems are set to do this constantly without hesitation.

Parental dysregulation

So let’s just go over this so it really hits home, parents have additional sensory input and also have to constantly co-regulate their children. That’s a lot, and that can explain why parents can experience sensory dysregulation a lot more than when they did before they were parents. Who remembers leaving the house to go to work pre kids? Now let’s reflect on those mornings where you have inadvertently served your child's cereal in the ‘wrong’ coloured bowl. Dysregulation can present in feelings of overwhelm, frustration and increased anger or outbursts. Sound familiar? Dysregulation also prolongs experiences of stress and anxiety, impacts sleep quality, and even impacts our digestive systems and immune systems. It really is in our best interest to regulate our bodies.

So what can we do?

There are a number of skills that can be adopted to regulate ourselves, however, we can also start to regulate ourselves by simply identifying what is going on internally. Next time you go to scream at a ‘water bowl spilling’ situation; pause, take a breath and consider your own regulation. This understanding alone can help reduce negative internal self-talk and promote a kinder internal voice of understanding. Compassion to ourselves increases heart rate variability, and our ability to respond better to stressful situations (Kirby et al., 2017; Fris, Consedine & Johnson, 2015). This is really important as being kind and compassionate to ourselves releases Oxytocin. However, being critical of ourselves releases Cortisol, the stress hormone, increases blood pressure and also adrenaline, all things that negatively impact our sensory regulation even further. If anything in this blog has resonated with you then just know, you are not alone. Your reactions and experiences are common. Regulating ourselves is a skill that takes time to learn, but it is do-able. If you found the contents of this article relatable and want practical solutions for addressing overwhelm, frustration, and anxiety, sign up for our sensory regulation course today. Furthermore, keep an eye out on this page for more articles that explore the topic of regulation.

Sensory Regulation Course

Further reading and references

Dana, D. (2020) Polyvagal Exercises for Safety and Connection. W. W. Norton Company LTD., London.

Fris, A. M., Consedine, N. S., & Johnson, M. H. (2015). Does kindness matter? Diabetes, depression, and self-compassion: A selective review and research agenda. Diabetes Spectrum, 28(4), 252-7. doi:10.2337/diaspect.28.4.252

Jefferies, A. L., Canadian Paediatric Society, Fetus and Newborn Committee (2012). Kangaroo care for the preterm infant and family. Pae-diatrics 6 Child Health, 17(3), 141-6.

Kirby. J. N., Doty, J.R., Petrocchi, N. & Gilber, 1 (2017). The current and future role of heart rate variability for assessing and training comparsion. Frontiers in Public Health, 5, 40. doixo.3389/fubh.2017.00040

Porges, S. W. (2010). Music therapy and trauma: Insights from the poly-vagal theory. In

Stewart, K. (Ed.), Symposium on music therapy and trauma: Bridging theory and clinical practice. New York: Satch-note Press.

Porges, S. W. (2015). Making the world safe for our children: Down-regulating defence and up-regulating social engagement to 'optimise the human experience. Children Australia, 40(2), I14-123. doi:10.1017/cha.2015.12.

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