At Beacon, we talk a lot about connection. We know that when children are struggling they often need to feel more connected. We also know this experience of connection only needs to happen some of the time and managing discomfort and disconnection is healthy for children – and their parents – because it helps us learn to find our way back to connection with others.
Even though children only really require connection 30% of the time, for some parents even this can feel like a big ask. If your child is neurodiverse, autistic, has sensory processing needs or has experienced early relational trauma then social communication and relationships are full of challenges.
For some children, the demands for connection are so overwhelming they will do anything to avoid it. If you are parenting a child like this you’ll know it can seem like they have a full military defence system they can deploy at a moment’s notice. For these children, even when they are feeling safe they can’t always turn off their defence system. This is because we all have an innate ability to sense when we are in danger. We are hard wired to know when there is an imminent life threat and respond.
What is neuroception?
Neuroception is the alarm system running our defences. It means we can sense whether we are safe or unsafe before we even register the thought. Ever slammed on the brakes before fully thinking about it? That’s neuroception. It’s life saving, but if we are exposed to lots of unsafe experiences we can start to get anxious and stuck in an unsafe mode, meaning we live in a state of protection not connection.
For children whose sensory needs or social communication needs mean they need to be handled with care everyday, life can leave them feeling like they are struggling. The smallest discomfort from a door banging (for anyone who watched Katie Price: Harvey and Me) to the wrong socks can feel unsafe.
While there is much we can do to make sure those challenges don’t arise, it is a different type of military operation to catch every slamming door. For that child, having someone who understands their needs and someone who protects them from things which make them feel unsafe is what helps them to feel safe.
Connection, rhythm and being in sync
Relationships are dynamic and, as psychologist Dr Trevarthen says, a little bit like a dance. Our interactions are a way of responding to one another. These interactions are all part of healthy development allowing us to remain open and curious about the other person, listen to them and make them feel like they belong. Dr Trevarthen suggests we are always learning from watching one another and that babies are born with a sense of the rhythm of interaction and relationships. It is when we are out of rhythm or can’t seem to ‘catch the rhythm’ with our children that parents often feel as though they are failing, however that’s not the case. We can’t always be in sync and in rhythm. Being ‘out of rhythm’ happens to everyone, even the very best dancers on Strictly Come Dancing get out of sync.
Play, at its core, has a rhythm and uses singing, clapping, dance and movement as well as turn taking to help parents be in sync, or connected, with their children. Through introducing playful and rhythmic interactions, activities and games, like those in our Cards to Help You Connect, you may find you ‘catch the rhythm’ and experience more connection with your child.
A Polyvagal-based poster and resources
- 1 x ‘How Are You Feeling?’ poster to help adults and children identify and validate thoughts and feelings
- 3 x ‘How Are You Feeling?’ cards to help adults and children identify the thoughts, feelings and physical characteristics of SAFE, STRUGGLING or DROWNING. These cards also provide suggestions of things children and others can do to help when they are in that state.
- 2 x sets of characters – a set for adults and a set for children – to be used to stick on the poster to show how they are feeling. They can also be used in storytelling. We’ve also left some blank spaces so you and your child can draw your own characters.
Play-based activity and games resources
- 1 x introduction card
- 9 x play-based activity cards containing games suitable for playing when SAFE, STRUGGLING or DROWNING.
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 your child’s behaviour please contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org to find out how we can support you and your family.
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