Once we understand that behaviors are symptoms, we can move from behavior focus towards regulation focus. Behaviors are symptoms of stress caused by needs felt. The stress does not have to be traumatic to count. If I am cold, I put on a sweater. Putting on the sweater is a symptom. I meet my need (self-regulate) as a mature adult. A child able to self-regulate his temperature will have the same symptom. One better at co-regulation will say he is cold and probably ask for a sweater. A child completely dependent on others to regulate will shiver or cry.

How To Address Symptoms Through Regulation

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Figure out what the need is, name it for the child, and meet it.  We do not need to figure out if it’s trauma or behavioral. Your child is a child with trauma and that affects brain development. Therefore, every need felt will be affected by that experience. Sometimes, it will be ok and sometimes, it will be a great big storm.

Let’s imagine a preschooler who cusses and screams at every hint of stress. My main job at this stage is being the voice, as if his cussing and screaming are like the cries of an infant. He yells and I say, “You’re mad. Oh man, you don’t like when…” or “You are hungry. You really want. . .” Once I hit the right words and he agrees, I ask “What can we do about that?” Most of the time, I have to also provide the answer. If he agrees with the answer, I then get him to ask. “May I please have. . .?” Then we meet the need and move on. Behavior ignored, need met, lesson learned, hope for a better next time. (co-regulation)

Sometimes, you have to meet the need before you teach better words. This is especially true if being given voice is new for the child. It is not spoiling. You are relieving stress so the thinking part of the brain is back in charge and ready to learn.

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Keep Dysmaturity In Mind When Regulating

Keep dysmaturity in mind when working with children from hard places. Typically, you can cut their age in half to determine emotional maturity, but this is not an exact science. It helps us know where to fairly set the bar. If a twelve year old is holding his blankie and sucking his fingers, I am not even going to treat him like a six year old. We are right back at infancy and I am in “other-regulation” mode. I won’t even bother asking what he needs, because he can’t tell me. It’s time for a weighted blanket and rocking. Once I meet that need of helping him regulate at his regressed state, he will be able to work with me in co-regulation as described above.

When Regulation Isn’t Possible

I have worked through a lot of dysregulation in vehicles and developed this kit to help. Sometimes, meltdowns seem to come out of nowhere and the kit is useless. One time, a little guy suddenly began screaming and kicking in his seat. It was so sudden and random, I had no idea where to begin meeting his needs. I calmly asked if he was ok and he screamed, “No! Cops coming! Cops coming!” There were no cops in sight, but I quickly realized the lights flashing on a noisy garbage truck had triggered a flashback. In this case, there was nothing I could do but wait for the storm to pass. Placing myself in his space would have scared him more and put me in danger. This example is not uncommon for children with fresh trauma.

There will be a lot of moments that surpass your ability to help. It is important to remember that your child is having a hard time and will need your connection when the calm returns. Connect with your child and assure him that he is safe. If there is a skill to be taught or one to be practiced with a re-do, wait until your child is fully calm and reconnected. Also be open to addressing anything you could have done differently.

The Good News About Regulation

With a lot of co-regulating work, children can get better. Seeing needs, giving voice, meeting needs. This is the regulation cycle, also the attachment cycle.  Eventually, they know to say when they feel crazy inside and need a break…. half of the time. The other half, the world is just too overwhelming and we have to do that “knowing” for them. Then about half of those times, it is just so overwhelming that all we can do is wait out the storm. And boy does it get stormy! When the storm passes, we go back to the beginning, talk about where things went wrong, and step right back into the cycle.


For More on the Topics of Behaviors as Symptoms and Regulation:

Is It Trauma or Behavior?

What Does Stress Have to Do With Behavior?

Sensory Gifts that Calm, Stimulate, Focus and Strengthen Your Child

When Connected Parents Do the Wrong Thing

Is it easy or difficult for you to view behaviors as symptoms? Which symptoms are the most difficult for you to address? Let’s talk about it!  I always enjoy your comments, but I would love even more to have you part of our facebook group where we talk about these things. Just sign up to receive posts through email and receive an invitation to the group. Easy Peasy!


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As a certified Stress Relief Coach, I am here to help you problem solve, develop strategies to reduce stress in your home, and empower you to facilitate healing in your family.

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