Outcomes in child welfare: What a well-modulated nervous system looks like

In this, the third blog in this series, I will write about what a well-modulated nervous system looks like among children and young people who are recovering from a tough start to life. Please also refer to the first and second blogs in this series, which can be accessed here and here.

Children and young people who are recovering from a tough start to life typically exhibit behaviours associated with an over-activated nervous system, or hyper-arousal. This can manifest in difficulty sleeping, emotional reactivity, and motor restlessness. Coupled with their proneness to approaching life under the influence of negative beliefs about self, other, and world (AKA attachment representations, or internal working models – refer to the second blog in this series) these children and young people are prone to anxiety and behaviours associated with the fight, flight, freeze response, including:

  • controlling, aggressive, and destructive behaviours (fight),
  • hyperactivity, running and hiding (flight), and
  • reduced responsiveness (freeze).

Unfortunately, these behaviours are not always understood to be non-volitional responses to activation of the nervous system’s in-built survival response. Rather, they are often seen simply as bad behaviour, and responded to with anger and disapproval. This only serves to further heighten arousal and confirm the child or young person’s belief that they are bad and unsafe and that others are threatening, leaving them even more prone to future anxiety and behaviours associated with the fight flight freeze response.

We are very good at noticing these signs of a nervous system under stress or duress; albeit that we don’t always see it for what it really is. Harking back to the first article in this series, we are comparatively less likely to recognise evidence of a well-modulated nervous system. If we are not looking for evidence of a well-regulated nervous system, we are likely to miss signs of it, with the result that we continue to notice and respond disproportionately to so-called problem behaviour, to the detriment of the child’s emerging self-image and our own feelings of competency in a care and management role.

So, what does a well-modulated nervous system look like? Children and young people who have a well-modulated nervous system experience longer periods of wellbeing and a range of natural emotions that are congruent with context and [easily] self- or co-regulated (that is, able to be regulated with the assistance of an attuned adult). They perform better in learning tasks and other tasks of daily living. Their developmental progress is within normal limits, or near to. They explore their world, including relationships, unhindered by anxiety. They sleep well and have less sensory issues. They are accepting of adult authority, and comparatively easy to get along with.

So, look for the signs of a well-modulated nervous system. You are more likely to feel optimistic about the future of the child or young person. They will, in turn, feel more positive about themselves.

For a more comprehensive introduction to my work, including a ways of supporting recovery from a tough start to life in the home, classroom, and consulting room, I recommend accessing A Short Introduction to Attachment and Attachment Disorder (Second Edition).

In the final blog of this series, I will present what the third aspect of the Triple-A Model (Accessibility to needs provision) looks like.

About colbypearce

I am a practising Clinical Psychologist with twenty-seven years’ experience working with children and young people recovering from abuse and neglect. I am also an author and educator in trauma-informed, therapeutic caregiving. My programs are implemented in Australia and Ireland, and I am well-known for my practical and accessible guidance for caregivers and professionals alike.
This entry was posted in AAA Caregiving, Fostering, kinship care, trauma informed and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Outcomes in child welfare: What a well-modulated nervous system looks like

  1. Pingback: Child welfare intervention outcomes: what does trust in the accessibility and responsiveness of adults look like? | Attachment and Resilience

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