To celebrate the launch of our Polyvagal Theory and Theraplay®-based poster and resource cards, we interviewed Charlotte Jenkins, Founder and Director of Beacon Family Services, to find out more about the resources and how they can be used by practitioners, parents and carers.
Tell us about these new resources. Why did you decide to create them?
We know through our work that children need to feel SAFE in order to grow and develop. For children to feel safe they need engagement, support and structure, to be loved and nurtured, and they need opportunities to challenge their development and learn new skills. Through Theraplay®-based games and activities, we help parents and carers create the right environment for children to feel safe and connect with their families.
Over the years we have always suggested to parents and carers that they would benefit from regularly playing the games and engaging with the activities at home and outside of individual or group sessions with us. While some of our families do play outside of sessions, for many the busyness of family life takes over after they leave our sessions. Without an aid memoir or physical resource to refer to or remind them of the importance of regular play, many families didn’t schedule time to play or prioritise play within their busy weeks.
We wanted to create a series of resources for families, partner organisations and fellow practitioners which would allow them to benefit from Theraplay-based activities and deepen their understanding of the Polyvagal Theory beyond one-to-one or group sessions. These resources have been created to help families connect. We want to help parents to think about how play can create a SAFE and nurturing environment for children to grow, develop and thrive.
We have created two sets of resources. The first set of resources is based on Dr Porges’ Polyvagal Theory and helps families and practitioners identify what state they are in and opens up conversations about how everyone is feeling, either SAFE, STRUGGLING or DROWNING.
The individual cards for each state drill further into the body’s response to that state, signpost any feelings they may be having and give suggestions as to how to support someone in that state. The second set of cards is based on Theraplay games and activities which can support individuals who feel as though they may be DROWNING, STRUGGLING or feeling SAFE and help build all important connections to move children and adults into a SAFE state.
What is Polyvagal Theory?
Our nervous system is the foundation of our experience of our world. When responding to stimuli each of us use our neuroception, a phrase coined by Dr Porges to describe our innate, unconscious sense which differs from perception. Within milliseconds our nervous system can sense danger and readies our body to respond. As humans it is the connection and trusting relationship with others that makes us feel safe. Supportive relationships coregulate us into a state of feeling SAFE which, in Dr Porges words, allows each one of us to “beam and gleam”, as with our lighthouse.
Dr Porges’ Polyvagal Theory describes how our autonomic nervous system responds to sensations in our bodies and cues in our environment in a hierarchical way. When you feel like you are DROWNING your system is shut down or immobilised, when you feel like you are STRUGGLING your fight and flight response has been mobilised and when you feel SAFE your social engagement system is ready for connection with others. Our resources help others to think about what state they are in and how to connect with others through therapeutic games and activities.
How did you come across Polyvagal Theory?
During my training as a Theraplay® and DDP practitioner we learnt that how something is said with words or through body language can change someone’s experience. For example, smiling and using a reassuring voice when a child falls helps to make them feel SAFE and cared for. For many of the children we work with helping them understand they are SAFE and will be cared for is at the heart of our work. Polyvagal Theory helps us to understand more about how the body and the mind deal with stress or trauma. It has been a really important part of my work since.
What are the benefits of applying the Polyvagal Theory to your work?
Behaviour is an expression of how your nervous system is responding to stress. We all have a drive to survive and thrive. When a child is STRUGGLING after detecting a threat, their bodies and their minds enter survival mode. Children who find social relationships difficult, have had traumatic, abusive or neglectful experiences or have neurodiverse developmental and sensory needs may need a lot of support in order for them to feel SAFE. The way we are with a child sends them really important cues about who they can and should trust and who they shouldn’t.
Being around children whose behaviour expresses how they are feeling is stressful. The ability to notice a child’s typical behaviours allows parents or carers to recognise signs that they are becoming anxious, afraid or overwhelmed. Once we, as parents or carers, are able to identify the signs, we can intervene with calming and soothing strategies. Our resources are also helpful for parents and carers to recognise how they are feeling, find the best strategy to help themselves and respond in a way that helps everyone stay calm and feel SAFE.
How can parents, carers and practitioners use these resources and what are the benefits?
These cards create the opportunities for parents and children to find ways of being in sync and sharing pleasure in the activities. This is enormously important and these positive relational experiences will build trust in others and lead to feelings of being SAFE.
When is the he best time to introduce the ideas?
Start using these resources and play with your child are when you and your child are feeling SAFE. If you child begins to feel as though they are STRUGGLING and has a meltdown later, once you have supported them to feel calm and you both feel SAFE again too you can reflect on what each of you may have been feeling at the time and what triggered it.
We have given indicators of when the cards may be helpful to a child. Parents and children can use our imagery to start talking about and noticing the feelings they are having in their body in order to make sense of what helps and when.
Parents can benefit from recognising their own nervous systems response so they can offer both connection and correction when parenting. Parents must take the lead in calming themselves so they can help their child. Children learn to do this themselves after being supported. No matter how old they get, they may sometimes still need help.
Experiencing safety opens up possibility and it is through interaction that children can begin to experience connection. We all move through feeling like we are SAFE, STRUGGLING AND DROWNING at different points over weeks, days or even hours as our nervous system responses to internal and external stimuli. The aim is be able to move back to feeling SAFE, rather than getting stuck feeling like you are STRUGGLING or DROWNING.
We have handpicked activities that allow for children to experience playful interactions that are sensitive to the cues of their body. Looking at one another, talking, singing and being rhythmic together, listening, regulating breathing and eating and drinking can promote SAFE and trusting interactions.
We recommend having these resources on show in an area of the house that the family usually spends time together such as the kitchen or the lounge. You can reference the poster when taking about feelings, thoughts or behaviours and use the Theraplay-based cards to initiate a game or an activity.
How do you hope these resources are used?
We believe that play matters. It is children’s language. So much can be communicated through playing. Playing is co-operative. We’d like to see the cards used by as many people as possible to help children play and experience healthy, SAFE and trusting relationships.
When parenting feels hard, it can be hard to be creative about play. We hope these will help parents at those times to feel able to play. Having fun together can be just the glimmer of hope a STRUGGLING or DROWNING parent or carer needs to help them feel SAFE again.
Beacon Family Service’s Polyvagal-based poster and cards and Theraplay®-based activity cards can be used by therapists, social workers, counsellors, parents and carers. Resource packs are available from our online shop.
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Charlotte Jenkins is the founder and a director of Beacon Family Services. She is an experienced social worker supporting children and families therapeutically using Theraplay and Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy.
If you are struggling with family relationships please contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org to find out how we can support you and your family.